We laid our father to rest on Thursday last, my sisters, my brother and me and I couldn’t be prouder of my brother Michael who dug the grave.
Dad was buried, as per his wishes, next to his mother and father in a plot that Michael had had the foresight to reserve many years ago. I should perhaps say here that my brother is not only a gravedigger but groundskeeper/manager of the cemetery in Berkhamsted where dad was buried.
It was a strange day, we didn’t have a service, none of us are what you’d call religious and with the Covid situation, not a lot of people would have come out to a service anyway, so we just had the burial.
It was sad, the end of an era, but it was good to see my siblings face to face for the first time in ages and not on a screen. We’d all met at the cemetery and the hearse arrived preceded by a suitably solemn looking chap in a frock coat and top hat. We’d all agreed that the one thing that dad would appreciate would be a large, posh looking, shiny hearse and that’s exactly what he got.
Afterwards we had a little gathering with drinks and nibbles and tales of dad in days gone by, some of which I have related below. Dad was, amongst other things, a chauffeur and taxi driver and he often regaled us with tales of “goings on” back in the day.
One of the first driving jobs dad had, after he’d done his National Service, was as a driver in the Royal Household, right at the back of the cavalcade, driving a car with all the luggage in it, as he described it.
He then got a job driving for Cooper, McDougall and Robertson in Berkhamsted and it was at his time that he met the woman who was to become our mum. His work for Coopers or the Wellcome Foundation as it later became, continued into the 1970s; he regularly got the call to drive down to Heathrow and collect a package to be transported back to the Wellcome laboratory in Berkhamsted and more often than not, in the school holidays at least, he would allow me to go with him and if we were lucky there’s be a little time spent at the observation area at Heathrow.
Just what was in those packages remained a mystery to me for some time but they were insects from parts foreign, sent to Wellcome to be experimented on, no doubt to see what would kill them or render them harmless to farm livestock and or humans.
In the late 1960s dad started his own taxi firm, Steel’s Taxis. This made my life interesting at school.
“What does you dad do? He steals taxis!”
It was futile to point out that it was spelled differently.
My mum would “man” the telephone and that in itself was interesting as our telephone was on a party line, can you imagine that?
Comedian Joe Baker, who had his own TV shows back in the 1960s, was staying at Champneys Health Resort and phoned for a car; dad got the job. Joe asked dad drive him to a pub down in Berkhamsted and when they got there, Joe invited dad in to join him. After a few drinks Joe wanted to go somewhere else so dad drove him to the next venue where once again dad was invited in to partake of the refreshing libations on offer. At the end of the evening Joe invited dad in to his room and they finished off on a bottle of Southern Comfort, after which dad drove home.
Funnily enough, that wasn’t his only “fare” from Champneys, there were others who were ostensibly there for their health who wanted to escape and go out on the town; dad willingly obliged and by all accounts was well paid for his efforts. It was a different bloody world back then.
Lord and Lady Docker getting up to hanky-panky in the back of the car.
The first time dad related that particular story I had no idea who Lord and Lady Docker were, but I knew their name from of all things The Goon Show to which I listened to avidly whenever it was on the wireless in the late 60s and 70s.
I’d guessed that Lady Docker at least must have been a little, unconventional. The reference in the Goon Show comes from an exchange between Henry Crun and Minnie Bannister in the episode, “The Dreaded Batter Pudding Hurler (Of Bexhill-On-Sea)”
|Henry:||Ooh oh, Minnie?|
|Henry:||Minnie, did you hear a gas oven door slam just then?|
|Minnie:||Don’t be silly, Henry! Who’d be walking around these cliffs with a gas oven?|
|Minnie:||Yes, but apart from the obvious ones…|
Now of course, whenever I listen to The Goons, and I still do quite regularly, I am reminded of that story about the Dockers “getting it on” in the back seat of dad’s car.
Dad was always having ideas to make a little money on the side and one of them worked for a while. Dad would come home with pieces of wood and he and I would chop them into smaller pieces suitable for kindling, bag them up and sell them to the neighbours. Well, you know, I would go round and sell them hoping to take advantage of the fact that I was a sweet innocent child trying to earn a little pocket money. Do you know? It worked, for a short while, then it was summer and nobody wanted kindling but we’d sold some wood and made some money.
Dad worked at Scammell Lorries in Watford for a while and he smuggled out enough bits of steel angle and other bits and bobs to build a go-kart for us kids. A steel go-kart with a proper steering wheel and steering linkage to the front axle and a set of bike pedals and chain drive to the rear axle. To a young kid it was the bee’s knees and it weighed a flipping ton, if you drove it into somebody’s shins, they sure knew about it.
Once my dad picked up a fare from Heathrow, a chap called Arthur Frank, son of the founder of Charles Frank Ltd. a company that made telescopes and binoculars. They got to chatting and dad mentioned that his son, me, was a bit of a “star gazer”, well, I was and still am. Next week a package arrived from Charles Frank Ltd.
Inside the package, amongst other things was a letter from Arthur, thanking my dad for his “courtesy and efficient services” and there were also a goodly number of books, pamphlets and other materials all to do with astronomy, there was even a map of the moon compiled by Patrick Moore. Arthur’s letter finished off by saying that he hoped one day to see the words, “Steele, Astronomer Royal”. He’d spelled our family name wrong but I forgave him. I was overwhelmed by this lovely and quite unexpected gift, as was my dad, and I immediately got stuck-in to reading everything, several times.
One evening dad arrived home and told me to get my shoes and coat on as he had a surprise for me. Excitedly I got ready and he drove me the short distance from where we lived to the railway station, we went up the steps to the centre platforms, 2 and 3. At the end of the platform there was the lift tower from the subway which ran below the platforms and beyond that, there stood Berkhamsted Signal Box.
Dad led me down the slope at the end of the platform and past the lift tower. A man appeared at the signal box door at the top of a flight of wooden stairs and dad led me up that flight of stairs and into the signal box. This action was of course quite forbidden to non-railway personnel, but dad knew the guy on duty and had arranged for me to have a glimpse of what goes on in the signal box.
Thanks dad, rest easy.