Ghosts Before They Were Ghosts

Robin Ince reflects on the passing of his dad

From my mid 20s onwards, whenever I walked into my my mum and dad’s house late at night, I would think about how one day I would walk in and they would no longer be there. 

They appeared as ghosts to me before they were. 

After each Christmas I would wake up every morning with a cloud of depression wondering if this had been the last Christmas that they would both be there.

Who would play David Soul’s Let’s Spend a Quiet Night In over and over again on Christmas Eve? 

Would someone else take on the task of writing cryptic clues on Christmas presents and refusing to let you open them until you had guessed correctly? 

They are both gone now and it seems my morbidity has prepared me well. 

When you tell people you have lost a parent, they will often protect a terrible, mournful mood upon you and, perhaps oddly to some, I do not feel that. 

Some of me feels ajar at having no dramatic outpouring, but for all my anxiety, now it has happened, it does not feel so bad. 

The sting is cooled by all that contemplation over the decades.

One of of the occasions when my mother was ill and frequently delusional, each night I would sit with my dad drinking whisky and watching the BBC adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

I was aware that this would be one of my memories of us when he was gone. 

For my mum, it is watching Rising Damp. When longer narratives became difficult, this classic ITV sitcom made her laugh so uncontrollably I was sometimes worried it would be the death of her. 

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As a family, we are fortunate. We all get on with each other and there was no “unfinished business”. He knew he was loved, not through words spoken, but by actions taken.

Also, I think he was ready to go.

The last two pieces of mail I opened for him while he was till in his own bed were a hand-written card from Guide Dogs for the Blind about how much money had so far been raised in memory of my mum and a note from one of his favourite publishers, Fleece Press.

Five days later, after 24 hours in a hospital corridor, followed by four days of excellent care in a Stoke Mandeville hospital ward, he was dead. He was still surrounded by loving family despite the number of times he had told we friendly visitors to shut up when we walked in because he was watching Foyle’s War.

Since that time, we three children have begun the arduous task of sorting things. Having not moved house for 59 years, much has accrued, from bags of sandpaper to Lamb’s Navy Rum calendars. The greatest secret revealed so far is that his mother was known as “Babs”, a less Babs-like human I cannot think of. She was our scary, Victorian grandmother, more Mrs Danvers than Barbara Windsor.

There have been numerous road trips to local charity shops, my bibliomania is inherited. I have already removed over 50 bookmarks from quarter read novels and found his reading diary from 1975, a year of AJ Cronin and Tom Sharpe. At some point, we will need to decide which of his books have the most of him in them, but so many will find themselves in hands of others.

I am trying to distribute them to friends I know will use them well – Toby Hadoke for old actors autobiographies (Roland Culver, Donald Sinden and Anthony Quayle so far), anything with a hint of the music hall to my pants dame pal, Andre Vincent, and things of illustration interest to Joanna Neary. I know those books lives will continue with them.

Over the last week, I have found myself looking at films online and seeing books on shop shelves and thought, “oh I must tell…oh no, I can’t now”. Today, I found a book I bought for him, but never managed to pass on about the art of The Theatre Workshop. The last book he received from me was a biography of the actor Robert Donat. The last book I asked about on his behalf as I started my journey to Stoke Mandeville was an anthology of the first world war newspaper, The Wipers Times with a foreword by Henry Williamson.

Ghosts are real. They might not appear in front of us clanking their chains or waving their head, but they live inside our mind.

When a person dies, people will sometimes say, “ah, but they live on in your memories” and it can seem like a pretty poor consolation or just a nothingness to say that might create the illusion of comfort, but I have found it to be true for me. I’ll still be spotting books for my dad and looking in sweetshop windows and wondering if my mum wants fudge or Turkish delight.

Here is a poem I wrote after my mum died. I will write the book ghost one for my dad soon.

The Fudge in the window
was spur for a memory.
Cut Cubes behind glass
Wasps dipping & licking.
No need to go in now
I can leave the shop be.

Last time we bought some,
They slumped in that paper bag
to the left of your chair
lumping back
to single candy mass
in the sunlight.
Never Forgetful over sweet treats
You barely touched them now
Still there when you were gone.

No purchase needed
I’ll browse a while anyway
Maybe a quarter of rum n raisin
Shame to leave empty-handed
What shop window reflection
Might project me
when I’m gone?

On 12th May at 7pm Robin will be doing a one off talk – Books and My Dad – all about the obsession he contaminated Robin with. Profits to St Mungos, Robin’s Dad’s favourite charity. Tickets from The Berkhamsted Bookshop.

Robin Ince is a multi-award winning comedian, writer and broadcaster.  As well as spending decades as one the UK’s most respected stand-ups, Robin is perhaps best known for co-hosting The Infinite Monkey Cage radio show with Prof Brian Cox.  For his work on projects like Cosmic Shambles he was made an Honorary Doctor of Science by Royal Holloway, University of London. His latest books are The Importance of Being Interested and Bibliomaniac.

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