x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Wisdom of the fathers, or stuff our dads said

In a special Father's Day feature, members of The National staff pay tribute to their fathers as guides, philosophers and friends.

In March 2009, when my last days of childlessness were rapidly approaching, I received a card in the post. It pictured a man in a vest standing in a garden. He was smoking a cigarette and tending flowers, while a baby lay nearby in a pram. The garden was sunny and bright. The man and the baby looked happy. "Fatherhood?", read the caption, "there's nothing to it!" Up until that point, as an expectant father, I had not really pondered what lay ahead. Of course I had read bits and pieces. Like a traveller preparing for a trip to a far-off land, I had listened to first-hand accounts, which ranged from brief tales of wonder to florid tales of woe. In truth, I had no idea what to make of it. It was unchartered territory, which I hoped would make more sense once I arrived.

After my daughter was born, something did slowly start to dawn on me. I had been to this realm before - only as a child rather than a parent. In the first year of fatherhood, I found myself reliving long-forgotten moments or at least imagining myself remembering them. When you become a father, the bizarre time-warp of the father-child relationship, which tends to lock the father in to a particular time like a great song, suddenly doubles back on itself and starts over again. Just 14 months after becoming a parent, I already have a new appreciation for my father. At the moment, with Astrid a toddler, this awareness emerges when handling the daily balance between fear and freedom, the tightrope between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. His calm approach is something I seek to emulate. But pretty soon I imagine things I learnt from him will be parroted from my mouth and advice he perhaps never got credit for will find its way involuntarily to my lips. "It's one of the best things you'll ever do," said my father a few days after Astrid was born. It wasn't advice, but it was the right sentence at the right moment from the right person. Surely, that's what fatherhood is all about.

The things my father taught me cover a broad range of pursuits, which pretty much reflects the man that is Geoff Lewis. When I was 12, Mum went back to work and I started cooking dinner for the family, but it was Dad who showed me how to sautée an onion and add a kick to a bolognese sauce. At the same age, he taught me how to revise for exams. As a history teacher, he had a few ideas on how to summarise complicated information for the purposes of surviving the teenage hell that is examination time. He made my teenage years more fun by teaching me the laws of rugby, with the constant reminder that rugby has "laws, not rules", and that the first rule is that the referee is the sole judge of time. Around the age of 18, there was the don't-tell-Mum trick of how to take on a roundabout in my first car without using the brakes. But above all, the best thing Dad taught me, is to be yourself and not be obsessed with being cool. That in itself was the coolest thing of all.

I was 16 years old when I told my dad I was going to become a film journalist. Instead of rubbishing the idea, he was rather receptive. So much so, that between courses at Sunday lunch he told me his single criterion for determining which films ultimately sink or swim. "It's simple! All the best films are about submarines," he said, without a shred of self doubt. "The Hunt for Red October, Crimson Tide, Das Boot, K-19 - The Widowmaker." Before long, other family members began shouting out titles that fit his unique claim, albeit with increased tenuousness: "Yellow Submarine, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea!" I told them there were no submarines in Fight Club, Easy Rider or A Clockwork Orange - my favourite films at the time. But no one was interested in hearing me destroy such an elegant thesis. He continued to count every deep-sea adventure film on his fingers to prove his point, but the argument eventually fell apart when he tried to make a case for U571 - a rubbish action movie which starred Jon Bon Jovi. While my dad's advice happened to be worthless on this occasion, it taught me that you can make people believe almost anything if you have confidence in what you're saying and stick to your guns.

My dad taught me how to milk a cow while seated on a one-legged stool. That pretty much prepared me for everything that followed.

Of the many nuggets tendered by my late father, ranging from the teasing ("Never get married") through the precautionary ("Stick to the Agatha Christies" when at the age of 11 I stumbled on DH Lawrence - yes, that one) to the practical ("Never use a fork as a tyre lever" as the bubbles streamed from myriad points on my immersed bicycle inner tube), I think the most valuable concerned language. I grew up in Zimbabwe when it was called Rhodesia, segregated socially and politically, and casual verbal racism was the order of the day. Terms monstrous to modern ears were tossed about liberally by the illiberal and it was not uncommon to hear even quite young children using the most vicious terms. In our house and mouths, however, they were forbidden, even at the price of the occasional spot of school-yard tension. Respect was the cornerstone of my parents' outlook, inseparable from self-respect, a value that seems to have been replaced with "self-esteem". But my father was unequivocal. "When you diminish others," he said more than once (I was not a quick learner), "you diminish yourself."

My dad is an engineer and the piece of advice I most associate with him is the engineering acronym KISS, which stands for Keep It Simple, Stupid. On the face of it, it's not very useful advice for a mildly dandified journalist writing florid nonsense about art, and so I don't reproach myself too severely for failing to live up to it. The other advice he gave was his recipe for a happy relationship. If you and your partner disagree about something, the party with the less strong feelings on the subject should back down in the name of domestic peace. This principle apparently made a strong impression on my wife, who claims to have applied it rigourously ever since she heard it. But it strikes me now that it's really just another way of putting the point made by KISS: what matters is concentrating on what really matters. Wise counsel. I wonder, though: if you say it twice in two different ways, are you still keeping it simple?

It was night. I was lying on the floor of my dad's living room, in my orange sleeping bag with tigers on the inside. He was falling asleep on the couch. He began talking in his half-sleep. "Pride? honour? dignity," he muttered. That is what my dad thought about as his mind drifted off. He was a lawyer who did not charge a lot, and later the mayor of the town where I grew up. When you walked along Main Street, you could tell people respected him. He was someone they could count on in a pinch. My dad taught integrity.

I asked my father recently what he thought was the best advice he'd ever given me. As I sat there pondering the answer myself (was it his iron-cast belief that everything tastes better deep-fried twice, or that William Shakespeare was actually an Arab called Sheikh Zubair) his booming laugh signalled he had found his answer. "Dear daughter, remember when I told you to stick with accountancy and not journalism? Remember that I warned you would find it extremely hard - if not impossible - to find a decent job? It's a good thing you never listen to me." Sage advice indeed, Baba, sage advice indeed.

My father was the bravest man in the whole wide world. I know because he told me so and I believed him. He used to wrestle giant brown bears inside matchboxes and one day this great big bear was going to bite his head off when he shoved his hand straight down its throat, caught it by the tail and pulled it inside out. Now that's one brave daddy for you and nobody else in my kindergarten playground had a daddy as brave as that. When I was frightened by the bogeyman that my brother used to tell me was going to get me, or woke up screaming about the bears and tigers under my bed, my father would dry my tears and tell me how to deal with them.

When I skinned my knees climbing trees he would tell me to "be a brave soldier" as he dabbed on the disinfectant and I always tried to be just that, even though the soldier sometimes had a wobbly chin. I told my father that it wasn't always easy to be brave, especially when it came to the school bullies or teachers ticking me off. So he said I should picture them in my head looking really silly and undignified with bubbles coming out of their ears and wearing a pink ballet tutu or, if I wanted to be especially brave, imagine them sitting on the loo. It worked for me. And although I was always ready, I never did get to wrestle that big old bear.

My dad believes that one should never turn right on an aircraft. Sadly, I struggle to live up to this. Fortunately though, whenever I find myself heading for 31E, I'm able to take comfort in another of my dad's favourite maxims: "Nil desperandum".

My poor father. No matter how many times he said it - "don't hide your light under a bushel" - his four children insisted on doing the opposite. Hiding is our thing, you see. We are British, quietly confident in our own abilities, but would rather die than admit that to anyone else. The result, I can see now, is that you never get anywhere if you don't put yourself forward. Life's achievers are the people who go out and grab it by the horns; not those who are given, while at school, the "couch potato award", for spending more time than anyone else parked in front of the television. Some of it must have rubbed off, though: we glowed just enough to find ourselves respectable careers. And he is, despite none of us making prime minister, immensely proud of us.

My father always insisted I never spend more than half of my allowance, promising to double whatever money I managed to save. Unfortunately, this priceless bit of advice fell on deaf ears. But not all of his advice missed its mark. He taught me to always stand up for myself. If I got pushed around, shoved or punched on the playground, "Push back and throw a punch," he'd say. "Don't wait for someone else to come to your rescue." And yet he was always there to rescue me. He stepped in when those credit card debts threatened to drown me. He shook me out of my stupor after a terrifying car accident. He demanded my rights as a student from my inconsiderate school principal and the cruel director of the music conservatory. He defended my right to work, travel and prove myself as an individual. He defied traditions, norms and expectations by allowing me to choose the man I wished to marry. I grew up around a man larger than life, who taught me how to laugh and live life to the fullest. He proved that hard work and perseverance really do pay off, and there's nothing in the world I cannot achieve if I put my mind to it. My father watches the Oscars because he knows that wherever I am in the world, I will be watching as well. And in the midst of the ceremonies, every year, my father sends me a text to tell me he cannot wait to see me win an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay so he can dress up in one of his smart suits and proudly walk me down the red carpet. No one believes in me like my father does. Perhaps that is his sweetest gift to me.

The best bit of advice my dad ever gave me was more of a life lesson. When I was a slightly unruly teenager, he always told me: "Trust is a very easy thing to break, but a very difficult thing to build". It's something I've always tried to live by. Short and simple, but very true.

"Foresightedness, hard work and strong willpower will help you achieve anything in life."

My dad Larry ran a big electronics company for years in Canada and has loads of gems when it comes to the workplace. The best advice he ever gave me was that when we compare ourselves with others, as is the tendency whenever our confidence or ego has been a bit battered, we may feel better, but it's a false better. He has said time and again that I am always going to look good when I compare myself with a loser. (He phrases it differently of course, using more colourful words not appropriate for a family newspaper, but you get the gist.) In repeating this throughout my life as I've talked about various work issues, he has never let me let myself off the hook. He also has a pat response that immediately settles me down whenever I am afraid that a mistake or a new job where I felt out of my depth was going to get me fired. "Are you stealing from the company?" he'll ask. I think he says that one just to make me laugh.

"Sit down opposite each other," instructed Dad, pointing at the kitchen table. I was 10, my brother, Drum, was nine. Our parents had recently divorced in a bloody process which had dragged itself lethargically to and from court. In the past year, I had learned to shut my ears to poisoned mutterings from either about the other one as the finger of blame was pointed back and forth, but the odd slur seeped in nonetheless.

"Look at this teapot," came Dad's next order, as he placed one down between us. It was blue, flowered and filthy. Its dusty resting place at the back of a cupboard had clearly been disturbed for Dad's instructional purposes. "What side is the handle on?" My little brother's head barely poked above the kitchen table. "The right?" he squeaked uncertainly. "Soph?""Well, it's on my left," I replied, being positioned on the other side of the pot. It seemed an odd activity. Weekends with Dad were most often spent in the cinema, playing quasar laser or bowling in an effort to distract everyone from the misery of separation. And yet, here we sat debating over a bit of china.

"A ha!" said Dad triumphantly. "You're both right, you see. Because the handle is on the right for you, Drum, and for Soph it is on the left." There was a baffled silence from his offspring. "My point is," Dad pushed on, "that there are always two sides to a story, two points of view. You might think something is right, someone else may think differently." Fifteen years on, my parents' divorce battle seems absurd and a teapot metaphor feels appropriately reductive. But it wasn't absurd then, it was a monster. And this was Dad's way of delivering one of life's great lessons, which I remind myself of from time to time. Although, I didn't sound quite so grateful then.

"Are we going to the cinema?" I asked, looking up from teapot to Dad.