My Father remembered

On retiring, my father covenanted (I quote) “with [his work colleagues] their heirs assigns and successors that during a period of twenty-one years or his lifetime (whichever shall he the longer) he will not write letters to the newspapers … critical [of them] nor will he publish or cause to be published any derogatory critical or scandalous article or writing which might cause [them] or individual members thereof their heirs assigns or successors to be exposed to even greater ridicule or contempt then at present may be the case My father was in his 95th year when he passed away, greatly exceeding the 21-year limitation. Right up until the time he was admitted to hospital with an infection, he was very much compos mentis. As sad an occasion as of course this is, we are here to remember – celebrate, in fact – a long and happy life.

John Henry Milton Bailey was born on 3rd July 1929. Like Star Trek’s James T Kirk, he inherited a middle name from his father, Henry James. I don’t remember Henry, although I do carry his middle name, which came in quite handy after I moved to Scotland. Henry was a GPO Engineer, which also seems to have been passed down to me in the genes. It skipped a generation though. That said, while at school, my father did attend a St John’s Ambulance First Aid course, and classes on motor maintenance. In those days one could maintain a car using a socket set, spanners and screwdrivers, and I have in the family archive his note book which contains meticulously drawn figures on the operation of the distributor, points and ignition coil, as well as notes on the correct procedure to perform an oil change: a procedure I remember him performing when I was a small child. I have used the notebook before now to berate my own students over their poor draftsmanship. At school, however, we learn from a report he received at the age of 13 that while he “Has done a good term’s work” in Scripture, any career in Engineering would for him have been a up-hill struggle as “Geometry is weak.” He was that year first in his class in German, and went on to achieve A-levels in that subject and in History, a subject that I managed to fail at O-level!

That was at Cotham Grammar School. One can’t fault his alma mater’s physics and mathematics teaching – he was in the same year as Peter Higgs, whose subsequent work on the origin of mass won him a Nobel prize. I can attest to German and History indeed being his favourite subjects. Along with a favourable headmaster’s reference, these secured him a job in the Bristol Corporation Health Department where as a Junior Clerk he received a salary of £73 and 12 days’ annual holiday entitlement. This is where he met my mother whom he married on 7th September 1957, the year he was promoted to Committee Clerk in the Town Clerk’s office, after passing a diploma in Municipal administration (£6 grant received to defray expenses) and a short-hand typing test (50 words per minute). He was absolutely devoted to my mother throughout their entire marriage: she pre-deceased him by about 7 years. I do remember my mother saying that she used to refuse to ride pillion on his motorcycle. Other than that, I can’t remember having witnessed or hearing about a single disagreement.

In February 1965 he moved to the Weston-super-Mare Corporation, and appeared in an article welcoming a new senior legal assistant, who had a 7-month old son. Children are very expensive, so my father set about studying for the legal profession. I remember being brought home from school by my mother and then my father returning from a hard days’ work only to have to disappear straight into the dining room of “Peverel,” 40 Cleeve Drive, Cleeve to study. If I were lucky, we would go out the back gate, and across a drainage ditch on a bridge made from a marble wash-stand top (subsequently re-purposed with an added wrought-iron base as a garden-room table in my house today) to play football before bed time. At the weekends we would drive to Bristol to see my paternal grandmother, who would play (formerly) popular songs ex tempore at the piano.

Unlike Engineering, it seems to me that becoming a practising lawyer by entry into The Law Society is considerably harder than obtaining a degree in the subject. My acceptance into the then Institute of Electrical Engineers consisted simply of obtaining am upper second or above in an accredited degree, followed by working in the field for a certain time and then an interview conducted by a man with a pipe who spent most of it reminiscing about how much slower computers were in his day. Conversely, the effort my father put into qualification caused him greatly to value his colleagues companionship at work and outside, and he was clearly much at home and surrounded by friends in his final job at Woodspring District Council. Here he eventually rose to be Solicitor and Deputy Chief Executive three years before retirement in 1990. It’s a recurring theme of the messages of condolence we’ve received that many of his co-workers had a happy time there. We have a note made by a reporter on a local newspaper in 1974 who had jotted down impressions of the senior staff among whom is recorded “John Bailey, clerk, laid-back but efficient.”

As a result of his not having taken the University route to professional employment, he was very excited when the time came for me to select a University for my undergraduate degree. I wanted to go to Durham to read Electronics and Computing, and I think he was a little disappointed that I didn’t try for Oxford or Cambridge which only had the general engineering science tripos. He was happier after we travelled up to Durham and he’d looked around the town. It appealed to his sense of history (the cathedral dating back to the 10th Century, and the religious community to the 7th, but there had been trouble with the Vikings). When I was invited back there to do a Ph.D., he’d learned from the pomp of the graduation ceremony the first time around and, when the time came, showed up wearing a solicitor’s robe so as to blend in.

He had been Chairman and Honorary Secretary of the Local Government Wessex and South Wales Branch of the Law Society and involved in their family days. In retirement he continued to indulge an active interest in the popular big band music of his youth, and ran musical meetings where a group would give recitals from records. This was the very same social activity he was enjoying in his school days when friends would come around to his house in Bristol and play records to each other as loudly as possible, although the 78 r.p.m. discs and their associated reproduction equipment couldn’t do that with quite the offensive loudness possible in the age of the semiconductor transistor.

I will remember a very supportive father who would never show disappointment when I chose such a widely divergent path from his, beginning at the age of 12 by choosing Latin and Greek instead of Modern Languages (other than the mandatory French) and developing no interest in History what so ever while I was at school. He bought me my first computer, which I had to solder up myself, and taught me about internal combustion engines … somewhat. I did have to ask assistance from the lab technicians in Glasgow when at a great age he attempted to dismantle and clean the carburettor of his Atco lawn mower (purchased used in the year of my birth), and stripped the threads reassembling it, but the machinists in the mechanical workshop were able to re-tap it and got it going again for him. He was also a devout churchman, and the editor of the church magazine of St Gregory the Great, Horfield, Bristol in the 1950s where he would carry the censer.

He took a great interest in train travel, particularly involving steam locomotives. I said at the beginning my father was keen on German. He corresponded for many years with a family in Germany having met the father who was an inspector on a DB train during one of his excursions. I went with him one year on a trip following the Rhine, and remember him excitedly running from side to side across the carriage to look out of the windows as the train wound its way along the riverbank. He would engage the other passengers in conversation, sometimes with embarrassing results. “I thought there was a bridge across the river here?” “There was until 1944, yes.”

As he was so keen on the German language, I’m going to finish by attempting a verse from Mahler, which I know my father sums up my father’s attitude at the end of long life well lived and remembered by many. Fr Maddock will be translating it for you in a short while.

Was entstanden istWhat was created
das muss vergehen!Must perish;
Was vergangen, aufersteh’n!What perished, rise again!
Hör' auf zu beben!Cease from trembling!
Bereite dich zu leben!Prepare yourself to live!

Nick Bailey, February 1st, 2024.