‘My Dad, Wild At Heart’

When Kate Morris’s father died last year, she had become estranged from him; now, though, she looks back on her motorbike-riding dad with admiration and affection


My father hated the word Dad and preferred us to call him ‘Daddy’ even when we were grownup with our own children. ‘Mum’ was even worse; ‘Toilet’ was banned.

He was apoplectic when my daughter was still sucking a dummy at the age of four, because it was ‘common,’ even though he loved her with a sweet, disarming passion. He was perplexed as to why my husband changed nappies, when our children were babies, but despite that, he always said that he supported feminists.

Although he could be a snob, most of my father’s right-wing remarks and outrageous proclamations were for show and to shock. He had a far more sympathetic and sensitive side.

He was a dashingly handsome man, exceptionally intelligent and informed, a good listener and genuinely interested in people. I am still taken aback when I sit next to a man at a dinner party, who only talks about himself. My father would have considered it boring and exceptionally rude not to find out about who he was sitting next to.

His parents sent him to an English public school, followed by Cambridge, where he read economics, ending with military service in a grand army regiment. He was Jewish, and at the time – the late Forties and early Fifties –Jewish people were looked down on and referred to as Yids by the English upper classes; it can’t have been easy surviving day to day in his regiment. Luckily, times have changed.

 “When he was in his early twenties, he busked around Europe and ended up falling in love with a French girl who fell pregnant”  

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Kate Morris age 8, with her father.

I was the second oldest child (he had four children with three different partners). Women were always drawn to him. When I think about him, I remember that he loved staying up every night until the early hours, smoking, watching TV or reading – in that way he was like an eternal teenager, and he always looked young for his age.

My father loved debating the topics of the day, walking with his dogs, reading political magazines. He stayed in touch by sending me snippets of news or articles that he thought I maybe interested in.

He never really cared about what people thought of him. When he was in his mid-sixties, he married a girl who was thirty-five years younger and they had a daughter. I gave birth to my first child 18 months later and I never quite forgave him for being on holiday the week that my son was due to be born.

When he was in his early twenties, he busked around Europe and ended up falling in love with a French girl who fell pregnant. There is a photograph of them coming out of a Metro in Paris. He had messy dark hair, a small beatnik jacket, and tight trousers; she looks beautiful and of the moment.

My bourgeois grandparents never forgave my father for having a son out of wedlock and he eventually returned to England and a boring job. My half-brother did not meet my father again until he was eight.

My father took up a career in banking and, in a highly symbolic act, smashed his guitar into tiny pieces, which is a story that saddens his friends and me, too.

He wrote a novel in his sixties, but he never finished it. I suspect he feared failure. One of his friends gave him a guitar for his 70th birthday but I don’t think he ever even held it.

He drank alcohol presumably to blot out the painful parts of his life. Which parts exactly, I can’t be certain of. It could have been the problematic relationship with his parents,  or perhaps the fact that he never followed his heart, when it came to a career.

Maybe it was to counter the unease with himself; a lack of confidence, anger that he was sent to prep school aged just seven during the War. Who knows for sure?

We are a luckier generation in that there are endless resources to turn to, such as  therapists and counsellors, and there is no shame attached to attending a 12-step meeting, such as AA.

By today’s standards, he had a problem with alcohol, but back then, everyone he knew was drinking. When I asked him whether I thought he was an alcoholic, he looked astonished, and told me that, no, he had just been “a heavy drinker”. 

During the late Sixties and early Seventies he was a partner in a private bank. Each office had a tray containing a glass decanter of whisky, a bucket of ice, and some crystal glasses – like the advertising executives in the American series Mad Men my father and his partners drank and smoked all day. 

When we were young he occasionally he took us to see his granny who lived in Brighton; this was a most unusual event as normally he didn’t look after us.

I found his presence exciting, and on Sunday evenings if he was home, loved to watch cowboys movies with him on TV, or sometimes drive exceptionally fast in his car. Inevitably, he would pick up hitchhikers, which thrilled me. 

Like the advertising executives in the American series Mad Men my father and his partners drank and smoked all day

He very nearly died in the early Seventies, aged just 40, when his liver haemorrhaged, and was extremely lucky to have survived. When he recovered, he was told that he should never drink alcohol again.

My father had separated from my mother by then, but after he came out of hospital, I remember her smoothing honey on his long scar that ran all the way up his stomach. After my parents separated we saw far more of him. I think he’d woken up and was frightened of losing touch with us.

He switched to drinking drink ginger ale with angostura bitters or lime cordial with soda water. He still liked to live hard and take risks – he rode motorbikes until he was in his late seventies. He celebrated special occasions with the odd glass of champagne and prosecco, which he pronounced “prochekko”. 

He died, quite suddenly, from a heart attack last August.

I was away at the time and was undeniably shocked, although I had already grieved as I had been estranged from him for a couple of years – we had disagreed about some family business and he refused to hear what I was saying.

Luckily, he died knowing that we were going to meet up at his youngest daughter’s 18th birthday. 

When one of my father’s many best friends asked me if I had anything to add to his eulogy, I replied that he had the gift of making people feel confident in expressing their opinions, because even though he may have disagreed with them, he was always interested and respectful of other people’s ideas.

My father was very generous with his praise when I achieved any kind of success, and he had an excellent sense of humour. 

I miss him. I miss his interest in my two children, who are now 14 and 17. I miss all his idiosyncracies and confusing parts of his personality very much indeed.

I still remember his voice, the way he called me Katie (no one but my husband and parents call me Katie) and when I see his photograph, my heart pumps.