Dad died on Sunday. I’m still waiting for the emotions to kick in, although I’m mainly concerned for my mother who’d spent three years visiting him daily – watching the decline of a once-proud man. A good day was one where she’d managed to feed him, or where they’d been a flicker of recognition at her arrival. On bad days he hardly woke, or lashed out angrily at the care staff trying to clothe him or change him or walk him to the dining room.
For 10 years the decline had been relentless. Each irreversible step pushing him further into the mental wilderness he eventually occupied: staring blankly at the wife he married and the children he reared. He saw my eldest born. Held him, in fact. But the photos reveal a man already in the throes of being hollowed out from the inside. Uncertain he could hold a baby safely, he clung on too tightly, his eyes betraying a mix of panic, pride and encroaching bewilderment. By the birth of my youngest he could barely speak – a thought would occur to him and be lost by the time the words were in his mouth.
Slowly, surely, the ravages of Alzheimer’s took him away from us, as if some internal janitor was wandering the corridors of his mind, switching off the lights as he went. And at certain points the lights were extinguished in the rooms containing us: first the grandchildren, then my sister and I, then his wife, and then any sense of himself. After that, it was a watching brief as all semblance of the father I knew was disassembled and removed: piece by piece, light by light.
Three years ago my mother could no longer cope with the human shell she’d once married and still loved. He moved to one of the two care homes that were to punctuate the last sad act of a life that had been marked by progress. Born in Plaistow in East London, he’d been brought up in a terraced house just off Green Street, probably the Newham thoroughfare most known to visitors because its course runs between Upton Park Station and the Boleyn Ground.
Indeed, he remained a West Ham supporter all his life – in fact one of the few ways to win a reaction from him in his final years. Yet he was always more interested than passionate: keen to see them prosper, though equally able to shrug off the inevitable setbacks. Of course, the stoicism of West Ham fans is legendary, and somewhat typifies the area – values that were to spill into the exurban Essex flatlands with the post-war diaspora that my parents were a part of. “White flight” some called it, though that’s to put a negative spin on people looking for a better life beyond Abercrombie’s greenbelt: fresher air for the children and a garage for the car.
That said, his most formative years – and an experience that returned to obsess him as his mental decline kicked in – were as an evacuee. Between 1940 and 1945 – aged between five and 10 – he shared a bed with two other grimy East London urchins in the house of a childless couple in the small town of Bishops Castle, Shropshire (pictured above, dad is the small guy on our left wearing a West Ham Speedway pin). “Uncle” George and “Aunt” Hilda loved him as one of their own. Meanwhile his mother, Ethel – her husband away fighting Mussolini – had moved to nearby Shrewsbury for the duration of the war and visited him no more than two or three times despite being just a 30-minute bus ride away. Once she came with a stranger he was told to call daddy.
It was a detachment that impacted the relationships he forged as an adult, although – as part of his later-life redemption – he came to recognise the damage such emotional neglect and confusion caused him, and to make amends.
Despite the war, my father was in many ways part of a lucky generation. The 1944 Education Act meant he was a beneficiary of a system that took the brightest working class kids and projected them into the professional classes – often via the sciences. He won a place at Stratford Grammar, which led – via Southwest Essex Technical College in Walthamstow – to him qualifying as a structural engineer. And that – in turn – became his ticket out of East London.
The values this gave him: of the link between hard work and self-improvement; of overcoming the genuine barriers to progress through sheer determination; of the power of education to change lives – eventually became my values, for which I’m grateful. He recognised that many doors remained closed to the working class, but that didn’t stop people from disadvantaged backgrounds making enormous progress. They just had to strive for it.
And his progress was certainly marked. Within a few years of qualifying he was made a partner at a firm of London structural engineers – soon starting their Brentwood office as the junior then equal partner to Arthur Crowe, who I remembered fondly as the kind man with the generous Christmas presents. By 1980 the firm had been renamed Crowe Kelsey and employed over 30 people. Soon after that it became Peter Kelsey & Associates and developed a national reputation for subsidence.
So I remember a moderately-comfortable upbringing in the leafy lanes of Writtle, near Chelmsford. I also remember a man with an acute work-ethic, as well as a deep pride in his achievements. He owned a Rover 3800 (numberplate SHK 444K) and the garage to keep it in. We went on foreign holidays (to Spain and Portugal and even on a cruise). And he was a member of a Masonic Lodge, although he gave this up: a step too far towards middle class respectability perhaps.
Yet he also had two children and a beautiful wife he’d met one Saturday night at the Ilford Palais. Partly to escape his now over-bearing parents (conceivably making up for their war-time neglect), he married aged 23 – immediately after his college-delayed National Service in the RAF. And it was here where he struggled. Too young for the responsibilities of family, he saw us as one more aspect of his arrival in the middle classes. We were the picture in the frame: the girl, the boy, the wife. We represented an idea of success – of respectability – while the reality of emotional neediness, of selfless investment, of unconditional love, dawned on him only slowly, and perhaps too late to prevent some collateral damage.
So his successes as a working class East Londoner turned middle class professional were nearly negated by the challenges he faced as a husband and father. I say nearly because in middle age he experienced a Damascene conversion. Seeing his mistakes, he spent 20 years as the model husband, as well as one of the best friends I’m ever likely to have.
Over late nights drinking single-malt whiskies and with a background of classical music (both tastes he acquired in later life but enjoyed all the more for it) we’d put the world to rights: our mutual interests in history, politics and economics gelling into unshakable – shared – beliefs.
Indeed, a final aspect to my father was his obsessiveness. History was his hobby, something he indulged with an almost unhealthy intensity. As a young child, I wondered whether books existed that were not about the Second World War, or whether there was a book on that conflict he hadn’t read. He then developed a keen interest in the English Civil War, so much so he became a leading light in the English Civil War Society: on the parliamentary side, of course.
And in later life he returned to his childhood – writing a book on his experiences as an evacuee. Mentally, his life had come full-circle, which was perhaps his preparation for the decline to come. By the time he was found wandering alone in a Chelmsford multi-story car park – an aggressive lift door causing mum to lose him – the only remaining badge of the man that once was were the letters after his name on the business card she’d put in his pocket for just such an emergency. No longer even able to ask for help, he still carried the qualifications that made him, and that the illness could never take away: FIStructE, CEng, FConsE, FGS.
It was a pathetic and drawn-out end, eased by the excellent care of Hatfield Peverel Lodge, and by the profound love of his wife, my mother Dorothy, who’d stuck with him during good times, bad times, and the ugly denouement that he didn’t deserve and from which he’s now been – thankfully – released.
Peter John Kelsey 1934-2015
The Service of Remembrance is at the South Chapel, Chelmsford Crematorium on July 16th, 3.30pm