I got a call at 6am on the 16th September to say Dad had died. My first feeling was to be thankful. It was a compassionate response. The last decade of his life with my mother away had been miserable and the final few months particularly awful as cancer kicked in. His life had been long over and he would have been better gone a while ago.
He died alone in a care-home having spent his last years with not a friend to speak of. A mild dementia mercifully blunted the impact of the isolation. Outside of professional carers the only attention he got was my weekly visit which was done more out of duty before any affection felt. Thorny issues abounded.
“Never get old!” he would say as he struggled to take a step. Given the way the elderly are treated I don’t intend to. We are a culture that sanctions the virtual abandonment of its aged. That it then turns up at funerals in some dubious social ritual is a pretension too far for me. I boycotted all that on my dad’s behalf and disallowed any public event. Putting his remains in a skip would have been more in keeping.
And what about these thorns? Well, into adult life I rarely stopped feeling contempt for the man who brought me to the world. This was such a cliché with all the typical Freudian connotations specifically him being such a lousy husband and so unforgivably horrible to my mother. He was bad at expressing himself and tended to vent grievances in the most verbally violent way hurling any kind of abuse at her he could muster. His brother, who he was in business with for forty years, got similar treatment. When John sequestrated the firm it was done out of wilful revenge and although a spiteful act was an understandable one. They never spoke again. That my father was unable to negotiate any kind of agreeable position for himself, both at home and in the business, smacked of immaturity. Faced with something he didn’t like he would stamp his feet. Consequently none of his issues were ever resolved and so the same round of explosive fights went on perpetually.
Being a bad husband didn’t make him a bad dad necessarily. Many of the good boxes were ticked. He was kind and generous materially. He was always there if not in spirit then certainly as provider. And that is no small thing given the many fathers who abandon their kids. Though he was a weak authority figure I say that in a positive way in that it brought out in me a sense of responsibility and maybe a tendency to leadership. And that still didn’t prevent me from getting to play the self-absorbed and petulant teenager for a bit, no doubt a major pain in the ass then. The five years I worked for the family business I was not always an asset and he tolerated that stoically. The hands-off support I got at the beginning of my career in music was a significant benefit as were the many small financial leg-ups. Occasionally they were not so small. Many years later when I was an established professional and renovating my studio building he was onsite every morning always true to the clock. Good time-keeping was unfailing in him and I liked that.
His repertoire of jokey humour I liked less mainly because it was so damn repetitive but strangers took it as affable banter. To the world he had a friendly demeanour and displayed a basic decency. Not knowing his inner disquiet you would have thought him always an agreeable man. Typically the good and bad were intertwined. Better in social company he was hopeless at home. He was easier in surface dealings than with intimacy. He seemed to have no capacity for introspection and gave no indication he was hearing you. He would never refer back to something discussed. He appeared never to recall a conversation or a moment shared. His fond memories were never family. They were either work-related (he liked his work despite the fractious partnership) or harked back to a time before marriage. I think marriage actually ruined my father’s life. He was unsuited to it and seriously unsuited to my mother. Hence his being constantly resentful. And distant. He came over removed and uninterested in the detail of our lives. He could not have told you our dates of birth, our middle names or the names of any of our friends. He could not have offered any insight into our hopes, fears and values generally. At least he gave no indication of knowing any of these things or caring which in a relationship can amount to the same thing.
And yet the hands-off remoteness was far from all bad. To be left to get on with it was okay by me. It was what I wanted as a young man and still do. Actually I advocate it as a form of intelligent parenting. As long as sufficient safety nets are there when needed. Not that there was much intelligence attached to it with my father. It was just a consequence of his general oblivion. But happy accident or not it kind of worked for me. A certain security was always present and that was crucial. Deliberate or not on his part for that I am grateful. Into adult life I would have liked to have developed a proper relationship with him and it was not for my lack of trying that we failed to achieve that. The best we ever managed was surface polite. He was simply too far gone, too ill-disposed to anything family-related to be able to connect with his son.
It’s an interesting fact that my dad died the week the world’s financial system was in meltdown. He would have pointed to that with some caustic remark. He was useless in monetary matters and disliked capitalists especially “the ones with no money” which was how he once characterised the working class. Alongside being a staunch atheist he was a lapsed communist and contemptuous of that failed ideology too. For all his reproachable aspects of character he was one of the least acquisitive people I knew. Unlike me he had no material or status aspirations whatsoever and was devoid of ambition. He would have been well suited to a truly Marxian society. He hero-worshipped George Bernard Shaw and Beethoven. At a young age he had read Shakespeare, Shelley and Schopenhauer. Not exactly the regular guy, perhaps another world would have better suited Alex Sorley, a world marching to a different drum from the one sounding during his living years.
I didn’t attend the cremation but went to see him in his coffin, alone. The fixed expression on his face seemed peaceful, the anguish and suffering of latter years finally gone. I shed a tear and said goodbye. And that felt fine. Enough already.
written 2008 following my father's death
ALEXANDER SORLEY (1921-2008)
personal • 12.11.08