It’s been a strange fortnight. My father-in-law died two weeks ago - on my birthday as it happens. (In Through the children’s gate: a home in New York, which I’m reading at the moment, Adam Gopnik relates how the attacks of 9/11 occurred as he was celebrating his daughter’s birthday, ensuring that the two anniversaries were entwined in the ensuing years. The same will now be true of my own birthday and the more domestic catacylsm of my father-in-law’s death.) He was in his 80s and had a long-term condition, but he was living a comparatively normal life at home, and his passing was a reminder that all deaths are experienced as sudden by those close to the deceased.
The relationship between a father-in-law and son-in-law is a peculiar one. In the early days of my marriage to H., I often felt I was living through a real-life version of Harry Enfield’s famous caricature of the relationship, captured in the catchphrase, ‘You don’t want to do it like that’. It didn’t help that H’s father was something of a perfectionist, albeit a gentle and forgiving one. In checking up on their son-in-laws’ performance, I suppose fathers are really saying, in a roundabout way, that nothing is too good for their daughters. I’m sure I’ll be the same when my turn comes.
My father-in-law and I could not have been more different. He was Conservative, I was Labour; he was deferentially royalist, I was vehemently republican; he was rural, I was urban; he loved sport, I had no interest in it; he was practical, I was cackhanded and cerebral. H’s parents were the first Conservatives I’d known up close. My parents sometimes voted Tory, but their conservatism was alleviated by their socially-concerned Methodism, which occasionally induced them to vote Liberal. For my parents, voting Conservative and reading the Daily Mail seemed to be part of the inevitable package of differentiating themselves from their working- class East End roots, rather than anything more deliberate. H’s father, by contrast, was a proud member of his local Conservative association, who took his politics from the opinion pages of the Telegraph.
His conservatism, with both a big and small ‘c’, was rooted in a long tradition of rural, working-class deference, overlaid by the personal experience of transition to suburban, lower middle-class comfort and respectability, the result of promotion through the ranks of the nationalised industry for which he worked. There was a time, in my callow Marxian youth, when I would have dismissed his social and political attitudes as merely a tool for reproducing an entrenched class hierarchy. But it’s hard to maintain this stance when faced with a living, breathing representative of such views, for whom they are a way of giving value and meaning to the events of his life. Instead, I grew to respect these opinions that were so radically different from my own and to appreciate the very real qualities that went with them. My father-in-a-law was, as many people who knew him have remarked since he died, a true gentleman: not just in the externalities of his dapper dress sense (he always wore a tie, even to wash the car), but in his grace, kindness and consideration for others.
I learned to keep quiet when dinner-table conversation turned to the royal family, or the trade unions, in the same way that I tend to refrain from discussing religion when my more evangelically-minded relatives are around. (Not that my father-in-law was an unthinking reactionary. He got on well with the union leaders with whom he dealt as a manager, and they respected him as a fair and decent man. And I remember him having his doubts about the Tories in the dying days of the Major administration: on a walk to the paper shop, he told me that he thought the British people were right to want a change, though he didn’t think they were ready to vote Labour.) Perhaps I should have been more honest and spoken up for what I believed in; but I’ve always preferred a quiet life, and I was keen to fit in and be accepted by my in-laws, rather than be characterised by them as a wild radical.
Over time, my father-in-law and I learned to accommodate ourselves to each other in other ways too. I don't know whether he mellowed with age, or I simply got better at those wretched practical tasks, but by the end I was a regular recipient of his praise, and looked forward to his ‘You've made a good job on it’, spoken in the country accent he retained to the end. Coming from such a perfectionist, I knew it was sincere. I shall miss him.