The people we know influence our lives, often in subtle ways. I was thinking about this the other day when I had my hair cut. As I sat in the barber’s chair, staring at myself in the mirror, a phrase came to my mind: “In the army they have only two styles, short and very short.” Memories of Harold came flooding back.
I think I mentioned that my father died when I was very young so that I have only one memory of him: being taken to see him in hospital where he later died. I was brought up by my mother alone, and my only sibling was an elder sister. When she married him, Harold was the first man to come into my life and I quickly seized on him as my model in all things manly.
He was rather older than my sister and I think he must have been in his late 30s by the time I first knew him. He was a tall man and quite imposing, with ginger hair. He was Australian. If that conjures up a picture of a cheerful fellow with sun-bleached hair and a surfboard under his arm, put it out of your mind. Harold couldn’t have been more different.
Harold was a survival of another age. He always wore a jacket and tie, even in summer. It was only after some years of marriage and nagging by my mother that he eventually consented to take off his jacket in hot weather. Until then, his inevitable reply would be “A gentleman always wears a jacket.”
Being a gentleman was the guiding principle of his life. My mother once asked him to call me for lunch. He came all the way upstairs to find me and tell me, quietly, that my mother wished me to come down for lunch.
“I didn’t mean you to go upstairs,” said my mother. “You could have called out.”
Harold looked at her reflectively and replied “A gentleman never raises his voice.”
I always anticipated their arrival to stay with us with some alarm. This was because almost the first thing Harold would do would be to fetch my Meccano set, a Christmas present suggested by him, and go through it element by element, criticizing any lapse of order, any missing component, any half-built item tossed back into the box without being properly disassembled.
Another cause of consternation was shoes. Harold was obsessive about polishing shoes. Mine never came up to his expectations and I suffered his criticism accordingly. I liked my hair long whereas, according to Harold, a gentleman kept his hair trimmed, as indeed he did. That was when he pronounced the dictum about army haircuts though I do not know why he thought that the traditions of military coiffure would have any persuasive effect on me.
You might wonder why my mother never defended me from these knocks to my pride and self-esteem. I have often wondered about this too because she was always fierce in her defence of her children and never afraid to stand up to authority, no matter in what figure it presented itself. I think she rather admired Harold and perhaps thought he would be a good influence on a growing lad. I admired him too and strove to be as much like him as I could.
I remember that she did once stand up for me. Harold loved Classical music. He didn’t just listen to it; he listened to it. When there was a concert on radio, he would sit listening in utter concentration and we all had to stay completely quiet. At any noise, a blush of anger would spread across his face. One day, my childish games pushed him over the brink and he yelled at me to be quiet. My mother stepped forward and in no uncertain tone reminded him that this house was my home, it was where I lived and that he, as an outsider, had no business telling me how to behave in it.
Apart from such minor spats, we all got on together well enough, spending our holidays together, either at home in Brighton or in their home, wherever they happened to be living at the time. I did learn a lot from him, not only about polishing shoes and how to behave at table (“A gentleman never cuts a bread roll: he always breaks it open”) but about science and current affairs and, in a word, life. The day I overheard him telling my mother that I had now reached the stage where I could hold a conversation and have interesting things to say, I felt extremely proud.
The only time he ever said anything even vaguely affectionate was one summer when I was a teenager and we were preparing to return home after staying with them. “It’s a pity you are leaving now,” he said to me. “I am going to strip down the car engine and overhaul it. You could have been very useful to me.”
When I left university and went out to work, I consciously tried to be as much like Harold as I could, wearing the same sort of clothes and shoes and behaving with the same grave demeanour. Gradually, I began to falter, to relax my standards and, eventually, to realize how absurd it was to behave in that stilted, archaic way.
Yet even today, I catch myself thinking of him from time to time, perhaps wondering what he would make of the modern railway train I am travelling in or the little digital camera that I have that performs tricks unimaginable in the cameras he used. Would he be intrigued by modern life or contemptuous of it? Probably both.
Yes, we are influenced in so many, sometimes subtle, ways by the people we know, whose lives intertwine with ours. What would Harold make of the man I am today? I don’t doubt that he would have much to criticize but it doesn’t matter. My concern now is with those whom I influence in my turn, hoping to do them some good or, at least, no very great harm.