The Blog

Goodbye Daddy

I've toyed for a little while with publishing the eulogy I wrote and read out at my father's funeral. What a twelve month it's been - I broke my back, was brilliantly helped by two hospitals, I moved flats twice and then - just as we'd hit a good patch - my father died. At the funeral, I did my best to capture his loveliness without whitewashing the more challenging, upsetting aspects of his character. He was a deeply loving individual who rarely let a day go by without telling me and my mother that he loved us. We'll hold on to that forever. On the other hand, I feel shaped and warped by his odder streaks, but I know he forgave me for mine, so I forgive him for his. The funeral was eye-opening. I had underestimated the joy my father's humour, his refusal to toe-lines, and his naughtiness had brought to others. Despite the years of apprehension I went through between 16 and 30, my father accepted my sexuality as readily as my mother did. All they'd ever wanted was for me to feel happy and fulfilled. So, as filled as I sometimes am with rage at his bevahiour, my forgiveness and my jubilation both dwarf those periods. I love him and always will. Here is what I read.

The Hon. H Donovan - 1934-2013

Photo: Meg Donovan

"Several years before my father's death, I made a post-adsolescent discovery - some of my male friends were only every touched by their fathers when being struck or beaten aggressively to reprove them for some very minor mischief. Then a penny dropped. I realised how lucky I was. My father hugged me from as early as I can remember. And these hugs were not the distancing kind where backs are slapped awkwardly as if to negate the effect of the hug. These were unmistakable gestures of unconditional love. The full realisation of how lucky I was hit me and I never took the hugs for granted from that moment on. I was equally lucky that my father said, "I Love you' to me; not the distancing, non-committal, 'Lots of love', which we say to mere acquaintances, including those we don't even particularly like. The phrase 'lots of love' has long since lost what meaning it might once have possessed whereas "I love you", which my father said so often, could never be mistaken for a casual, throwaway remark. It is a phrase which has retained its power.

Photo: Meg Donovan

Of course, no one is that simple. We're all complex - my father was not some idiotic, permanently grinning buffoon. He had a vast array of qualities. Some amused us greatly, others drove us to distraction and tears. He never conceded defeat in an argument, no matter now compelling the case put forth by his opponent. One of the occasions that has seared itself into my memory is my father's response when one of us remonstrated with him about some outrageous stance from which he would not budge. He would say, quite matter of factly, "I never said I was normal'. And that was the end of the argument. In hindsight, it makes me laugh to think that my father, whose rhetorical skills were second to none, would resort to the arguing style of a petulant four-year-old when it suited him.

Photo: Meg Donovan

I'm sure I'm not alone in recognising the crucial part my mother played in his life. Even though there was no terminal diagnosis, she effectively provided palliative care so that my father did not have to spend too much time in the joy-sapping, soul-deadening confines of hospitals. There can be few acts as loving as the refusal to hand over a loved one to the desperate, institutional and bleak surroundings of a care home or hospital. And my mother did this without a shred of martyrdom but because she loved him so much.

Photo: Timer, set up by Hugh Donovan

As my father grew more ill, his dependence on television increased. He enjoyed shouting at the newsreaders on BBC-24 rolling news, despairing at their studied hand gestures, use of language and sentimentality. I sometimes felt compelled to tell him that however loudly he shouted at the TV, the presenters could not hear him. He also discovered the American series Judge Judy which became a firm favourite. He would frequently come to stay with me in my one-bedroom apartment and turn up the the TV to ear-splitting volumes. But his generosity remained undimmed and he would often take us to dinner; myself, my mother and assorted cousins and friends. He loved visiting Oxford and developing a relationship with his great niece and nephew who were studying there. These budding relationships were a source of great joy to him and he would later regale me with tales of how well they were doing.

As I look out at those of us assembled here, I am doubly touched by the presence of those I know felt the sharper aspects of my father's personality, my mother and myself included; his dedication to letter writing which would sometimes be misjudged and spill over into obsession, and his unpredictable temper. I hope they understand, as my mother and I learnt, that he reserved this rather vicious side only for those he cared about.

I will always remember my father's quirks; his ability to pull funny faces at inopportune moments, to puncture pomposity whenever he encountered it, and his eagerness to play with me from an age at which I was pre-speech, pulling faces and feeding me at night so that my mother could rest. In fact, his roll-call of funny faces was something he was working on and expanding right up until the time of his death. I only wish I could mimic some of them right now and lighten the atmosphere.

I attended one of his appointments at Dorchester hospital some months ago and - to our annoyance - the reception desk was playing music quite loudly. It was banal, easy listening, drivel. As my father's irritation increased, I started to mimic the rather weedy, simpering tones of the singer, deliberately singing a semi-tone flat which amused him and calmed him down a bit.

He was never one for shying away from political activism. In the late 90s, he sent Germain Greer a £5 note via her agent, to assist her passage back to Australia. Over the years that followed, he would grumble occasionally about never having received so much as a 'thank you' note. On another occasion, he wrote a published letter to the Evening Standard, concerning Glenda Jackson, at the Transport Minister, and her decision to remove air traffic from Hampstead and the rest of North London, where she lived, and redirect it to west London so that while she enjoyed comparative peace, West London now received a double dose of the noise and pollution of passing aeroplanes. He wrote:

"I write concerning Ms Glenda Jackson's meretricious vapourings. It should be remembered that throughout her working life, Ms Jackson has uttered words composed by others, and has done so at the direction of third parties.

That reliance appears to have rendered her incapable of discriminating between William Shakespeare and Sir Peter Hall on the one hand, and the misleading officialese of some time-serving bureaucrat on the other.

My father, when he was an MP, not only new the meaning of the words 'duty' and 'responsibility' but put that knowledge into practice. Ms Jackson could do worse than follow his example."

The things about my father that made him difficult and maddening were the same things that made us love him as much as his more agreeable qualities. We saw them as scars and we longed to love and protect him all the more. I have no wish to remember a bowdlerised version of him, which I feel would diminish him greatly and turn him into a sugar-coated, red jelly baby. I know I can speak for my mother and myself when I say that, given the opportunity, we would gladly live through the same experiences all over again, both the good ones and the difficult.

In his final weeks, my mother would read to him from Trollope, acting the different characters rather than performing a flat, boring recital. This brought him enormous pleasure. And it's safe to say that no one brought us the same degree of happiness as my father, complicated though it sometimes was. We will never be loved in quite the same way again and for that we are grateful to an extent that cannot be quantified. Whereas there are millions of husbands who wash and wax their cars on Sundays, have two children, and leave a trail of boredom in their wake, there was only one Hugh Donovan and we are thrilled and delighted that he chose to share his life with us. As my mother used to say, 'just imagine if I'd married someone boring'.

When we strip away accomplishment, honour, acquisition and achievement, the only meaningful measure of a person is how deeply and how successfully he is able to love. And on that basis, my father was a resounding success. He told us almost every day that he loved us and the best thing we can do to sustain his legacy is to do exactly the same thing to those we love. My father knew that without action, love is just words; mere sentimental vapour.It only takes form and becomes real when it is expressed though words, touch: hand-holding, hugging, kissing and just being there in either companionable silence or stimulating conversation." And there ends the eulogy.

Photo: Charles Donovan

In Roman Catholic churches, applause is considered unexceptionally crass and vulgar. I was delighted that my description of my father rang true with so many people present that this unspoken rule was disregarded and the room echoed with clapping as I stumbled back to my seat, thinking, 'I'm so glad I got one thing right for my mother and father, if nothing else'.

I find it hard not see myself as part of the downwardly mobile curve of my family - my grandfather (here is his Wkipedia page, not written by me) a judge and Labour MP, my father a successful barrister despite arriving late at the Bar at 40, and then me - a jobbing journalist with ups and downs that would provide a psychoanalyst with several year's of work. But I am left with the goal of at least keeping the love going - and I have experienced bitterness, jealousy, spite, greed, superciliousness, all of which I wish to usher to the realms of the past.. That is something I can at least have a shot at doing. Representing my generation were two friends whose presence I had not expected. Of my non-related friends, only Arabella and Tom made the tiring journey from Dorset to London and back in one day. Trembling with nerves, glancing across the church, the momentary catching of their eyes, upped my strength and leant me the necessary confidence to speak the eulogy. One of the nicest priests I have ever met led the proceedings. And the day was bright and pleasant.