A Journey Round a Picture of my Father


[This is a piece I did about twenty years ago for BBC Radio 4]

I came on an old picture of my father the other day – one I hadn’t seen before, or maybe had seen and forgotten about. He looks as if he’s in his early thirties and he’s wearing a crumpled three-piece suit, with a pen in his waistcoat pocket and a badge or maybe it’s a flower in his buttonhole. But it’s the way he’s standing that gets me – leaning back a little, fists deep in his trouser pockets, head to one side as if he’s laughing at rather than smiling for the photographer.

There’s a devil-may-care, almost cocky quality about him that I don’t remember. He didn’t get married until he was thirty-five, so my guess is that this was taken a short time before he met my mother. In all the other photographs we have of him he’s with someone – usually one or more of his eight children, and failing that my mother. Seeing him here in this photograph, on his own, he looks…liberated, full of possibilities. As if he might do anything – stay out all night, rob a bank, get drunk, make a million. There’s no sense of any of that when he’s photographed with the rest of the family.

Did we stifle him – all those prams and bottles and sticky fingers? I hope not. Family ties can help you parachute to safety in a time of crisis, but they can circle your wind-pipe and choke you too if you’re not careful. I remember a young Irishwoman telling me about her first day at university in England. Somebody showed her to her room and when they left, she slumped against the door and sighed, the way heroines in the old movies used to do.  For the first time in her life, she said, she felt free of her family – free to go anywhere, see anyone, do anything. In fact her life over the next four years was tame enough; but that first alone moment, sweet beyond measure, never left her. The man in the three-piece suit looks as if he’s living that kind of moment, only with a bit more dash.

Not that he ever acted trapped when surrounded by his wife and eight children. Not at all. He always seemed to me…comfortable. A paterfamilias, yes, but never showy about it. No hugs, no kisses that I remember. The nearest he got to that with me anyway was a day when I was about eight, walking through a field together, just the two of us. I don’t know where we were going or why – probably looking for cattle that had broken out. Our cattle were forever finding gaps in fences and making a break for freedom. BUt as we moved through this field, either I put my hand up or he put his hand down, but suddenly I became aware we were walking hand-in-hand, and I remember marvelling at how comforting and warm his hand felt. And that was it: just that big hand holding my small one. For year I tucked a kind of tactile snapshot of that moment away in the back of my head. Occasionally I’d take it out to examine, reliving the warm pressure and identifying it as a mark of his special affection for me, above the seven others. But then about a decade ago, it emerged that for years he’d lived with erythromelalgia, a condition that makes feet and hands get swollen and hot. Cancel that little epiphany, then.

Like most Irish fathers and sons we didn’t talk too much. These days, you hear pop singers and other eejits lamenting that their daddy died before they could tell him they loved him.  The man in the photograph would have expired on the spot if I’d tried any of that stuff on him.  Talking about love? There was no need for that. All those other pictures did his talking for him – at the seaside, in the hay field, fixing a fence – there we were in every one of them, feeding off him, supported by him, revolving round his strong centre.  His life told the story of his love for us, every day. Like Basil Fawlty, my father had no time for people who wanted to state the bleeding obvious.

So I like this photograph not because I see a bubble coming out of my father’s head saying “Why couldn’t we have hugged and said we loved each other, son?”  I like it because it fixes forever this unencumbered, slightly mocking man, who shortly afterwards would freely – because he wanted to – walk out of the picture and pick up the baggage of nine other lives.

– Jude Collins

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