Thursday 8 June 2023

Goodbye to My Father, Man of God


Like Shakespeare, Raphael and Ingrid Bergman, my father, the Reverend Professor Stuart George Hall, died yesterday on his birthday, 7 June. He had just completed 95 years alive. Given his age, his visible deterioration over the last few months and our troubled relationship, I am amazed at how winded I feel.

Born to a working-class East London couple, a police constable and a seamstress, he ascended via scholarships at UCL School and Oxford to a firm niche in the Middle Class. My feelings about him are complicated. We did not rub along temperamentally, or rather, were not able to discover if we might have done had we not disagreed about many important issues. He was the type of man who was loved by all outside the household--his academic colleagues, students and parishioners--but found it hard to be an emotionally supportive father.

Growing up in a nuclear family where all decisions need to be referred to an invisible Almighty, whose views are relayed by his vicarious male agent on earth, is a weird experience. When I lost all belief in the Christian faith at the age of 13, my father was incandescent.

He was not a supporter of feminism (I recall his opposition to the Equal Pay Act 1970). He found it almost impossible to express any pride in my achievements (I cannot speak for my siblings). He was slow to anger, but his infrequent outbursts of rage were terrifying. He was no domestic democrat, and was absolutely furious when in my teens I began addressing everyone in the family as “Citizen”.

I did have it out with him after our mother died in 2016. Although he did not apologise, he acknowledged that he could have made much more of an effort to be supportive.  Our recent last meeting, attended by his new wife and my husband, entailed real, affectionate communication and was, I am glad to say, unprecedentedly warm and friendly.

And there are many things I owe to him, besides a firm jawline and an absurdist sense of humour.

He never embraced bourgeois values and when tired started to sound a little like the East-End boy he had been. Childhood interactions with his large circle of working-class relatives irrevocably shaped my politics. He hated racism and I was absolutely inspired at about the age of ten when he rebuked some distant relatives from the Texas Bible belt who had used derogatory language about African Americans.

He had a great sense of fun when he allowed himself to express it, and composed hilarious poems to divert his children when things were boring (as they often were in the 1960s). We used to drive all the way to Scotland at least three times a year. I adored his epic about Romans on Hadrian’s Wall, of which, sadly, I can only remember four lines, with deliberately tortuous rhymes:

         Send us the Scots and we will fight 'em.

         We are stationed at CorstopItum.

         Send us the Picts and we will fix 'em.

         We are stationed half a mile from Hexham.

He loved cats and we had long, jokey conversations,  which I remember almost daily, about what different tail shapes and positions might signify. He was the best shoe-shiner in history, and I can polish black leather boots to a radiant gloss.

I learned how to give a decent lecture by comparing his riveting sermons with those by the usual verbose and uncharismatic C of E preachers. Never more than ten minutes, a simple, lucid argument, improvised without any notes; sustained eye contact and clear diction, at least one joke and always a ringing quotation from the best prose in the King James Bible. It is down to him also that I know most of the Old Testament backwards.

He taught me my first steps in Greek by helping me decode the first sentence of John’s gospel and explained why ‘Beginning’ had no definite article. His own academic publications set a lofty bar on clarity, elegance and meticulous scholarship that I have tried hard to emulate.

I am so completely my father’s daughter that I feel intense sadness at the many things that kept us apart emotionally. That is my sincere final message to him, if he can hear me after death, as, in his piety, he was convinced he would be able to forever.