My father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2012, and was slowly whittled away by the disease until his death on 19th February 2020. I delivered this tribute at his funeral in Lytham St Anne’s on 6th March 2020.
One of the earliest photos we have of little Peter Stanley Gillatt shows him about five or six years old, standing outside his family house with his younger sister, Elizabeth — my Auntie Betty.
Can we see anything of the man he would become, in the face of that child? Perhaps.… He’s standing to attention and looking straight down the camera lens with a kind of… nervous confidence. The gun holster cinched tightly around his little tummy suggests he’s poised to fight gangsters with Dick Tracy at a moment’s notice. And he’s clearly from hardy stock, wearing shorts despite an inch of snow on the ground. One sock is pulled up to the knee while the other has slid down to his ankle — in possibly the first and last record of him ever looking less than immaculately turned-out.
Betty’s strongest memory of her brother as a child is that he was always freshly-washed, groomed and smartly-dressed. He was a choir boy at All Saints Church and a sea cadet — so he was clearly happy to be dressed-up and on parade. In a sense, he would be dressed-up and on parade for the rest of his life.
My Dad was born on the 2nd December 1930 at No. 72 Townley Road, Wakefield; a three-bedroom council house on a sprawling suburban estate. The house had been built just a few years earlier: a new home for a growing family.
Dad would prove to be the middle child of five, and the first son of Stanley and Marion Gillatt, taking his middle name from a clearly proud father.
Dad’s parents had married young. Marion had fallen pregnant with her first child, also Marion, when just 19. Stanley Gillatt worked about half an hour’s walk away, at Horbury Wagon Works, building rail freight wagons. By all accounts he was a strong-minded and self-possessed man — a union man — who once smashed the high windows at the factory in a protest against the hellish temperatures in which his comrades were forced to work.
War was declared two months shy of Dad’s ninth birthday, and air-raid sirens soon became an everyday fact of life — though Wakefield would be spared the worst of the bombing, reserved for the steel works in Sheffield, 30 miles to the south. A key memory from this time — which remained crystal-clear for Dad to the end, even through the fog of his Alzheimer’s — was of the family taking delivery of a prefab Anderson Shelter. However, it seems that Stanley failed to follow the instructions properly, meaning that the Gillatt children would be woken in the middle of the night, rushed out into the garden and made to sit with their feet in six-inches of freezing water. Maybe Dad’s own insistence, later in life, of always doing a job right was in reaction to this bodge. Today — in the back garden of the family home — stands a garden shed poised to enter its fifth glorious decade; though admittedly only held together by 50 coats of paint and a prayer.
A welcome alternative to the swamp of the Anderson shelter was a community air raid shelter built under the local rec — just over the garden fence in fact — and Betty remembers running pell-mell through those tunnels with her big brother: sticking it to the Nazis, no doubt.
But while the war might have been a game to the very youngest Gillatts, it would soon change the destiny of the whole family. And it’s why we’re gathered here in Lancashire, rather than Yorkshire.
Stanley wasn’t called into service, due to increasing deafness caused by long days operating the fearsome drop hammer at the Wagon Works. Instead, in 1940, he was conscripted to work at the Vickers-Armstrong aircraft factory in Blackpool, which was already producing 100 Wellington Bombers per month. Dad and the older kids travelled by train to their new life in Blackpool, while his Mum followed in the back of the furniture van with little Alan on her knee.
The Gillatt family’s first Blackpool home would be a requisitioned slum on Caunce Street — where the rats outnumbered the people by a ratio of five to one. “Even the cats were scared of them!” Dad would later tell me, with glee, whenever I complained about some trivial inconvenience at home, invariably adding: “And we had to smash the frozen water in the toilet with a broom handle!” In due course, the family would settle at a far more comfortable home on Wyre Grove.
As Dad moved into adulthood, his first job was on the railways, working as a cleaner and ‘bar-boy’ in the engine sheds of the old Blackpool Central Station. This was unimaginably hot and filthy work — climbing inside the barely-cooled fireboxes of the steam engines to lift and change the cast iron bars on which the coal fire has stood, and to scrape down the soot and ash from the inside wall of the chamber. It was a job reserved for skinny boys, because only they could fit through the door of the firebox.
He also worked as a Driver’s Mate on the tough little Banking Engines, whose job was to help push the packed tourist trains up the long embankment out of Blackpool. In an odd coincidence, 30 years later, he and his young family would move to a house just yards from the highest point of that climb, where the banking engines would release their burden and freewheel back to the station.
Of course, Dad dreamed of becoming an engine driver himself — and would surely have done so, were it not for one unfortunate incident. He loaned his free travel pass to his mum, who was caught using it. He then made his first trip to London — summoned to the head office of the LMS to be sacked. (He was by no means the last Gillatt to be condemned to spend a despairing hour at Euston station.) His dismissal would prove a bitter blow, as he would cheerfully have spent the rest of his years working on the railways. But it also prompted one of the defining decisions of his life.
On the 17th August 1948, Dad volunteered to join the Royal Navy, beginning his training in Chatham in October. His sign-up papers record this 17-year-old’s fair hair, blue eyes and ‘fresh’ complexion.
Training, on land and at sea, took over a year. By the time he qualified as a Stoker Mechanic — recommended for advancement — in early 1950, he had already been aboard his first ship, HMS Black Swan, for some months, working as a stoker and watchkeeper in the engine and boiler rooms. These were perilous times. The ship had only recently survived the famous ‘Yangzte Incident’ and, in the summer of 1950, as the Korean War was declared, the Black Swan joined British ships sent to support the US fleet in the Sea of Japan — mere inches of steel lay between my father and mine-infested waters. On the 2ndJuly 1950, the Black Swan, in an allied flotilla, was attacked by four North Korean torpedo boats at what would be known as the Battle of Chumonchin Chan — with three of the four enemy ships sunk by the allies.
But to the victor, the spoils… For his service in the conflict, Dad received a ‘Korean Gratuity’ of £15 — just shy of £500 in today’s money. Much of this, we can imagine, was spent in the drinking dens — and worse — of Japan, during his leave in 1951. Photos in his album show the sights of Tokyo, Osaka and Hiroshima — plus a cavalcade of dancing girls and other denizens of the saki parlours. He clearly played as hard as he worked — that complexion of his looking considerably less ‘fresh’ as you turn the pages. Meanwhile, his arms crowded with seaman’s tattoos, made in the traditional Japanese style by hammering a needle-tipped length of bamboo. To him, these were badges of honour and fellowship worn more proudly than any medal. The Navy Hymn, which we’re soon to sing, was his principal request for today.
1953 and 54 were spent on the opposite side of the world, aboard the HMS Burghead Bay. This was a relatively cushy number, if you ignore the punishing work in the boiler room, cruising the Caribbean as part of the West Indies Squadron, with shore leave on the likes of Bermuda, Trinidad, Haiti and countless others. This trip would be another key memory Dad’s brain kept safe against the creep of Alzheimer’s. In later life, no TV holiday programme, visiting any Caribbean island, would pass without comment that seen it all, and before a single hotel was built or cruise liner docked.
In 27thAugust 1954, while ashore in Kingston, Jamaica, three of his ship’s company were killed when a truck taking them on a sightseeing tour plummeted down a ravine. The tragedy cast a shadow on the rest of the voyage. This must have deeply affected Dad, as he kept newspaper cuttings reporting the accident tucked into the back of his paybook. When I asked him about it, he explained that he had decided against joining that excursion at the very last moment.
In 1955, he was on the maiden voyage and sea trials of the navy’s first modern aircraft carrier, the HMS Ark Royal, around the coast of the UK. The decade rounded out with short tours on a handful of other ships interspersed with training at Portsmouth and leave in Blackpool.
He left the navy on his 30th birthday, as an Engineering Mechanic First Class. His Conduct Report gives the results of an annual assessment made by his officers at the end of every year of service. And every year, his Character is described as ‘VG’ — Very Good, the top of four categories. His grade for Efficiency is invariably given as ‘Superior’ — again the top rank.
In addition, his Certificate of Engineering experience, issued in 1960, comes with a brief character reference that surely captures my Dad in a nutshell — both then, and at any point in his life to follow.
“He can be fully trusted to do a job without supervision,” it says — though my Mum might quibble with that one. Then: “Very quiet… And well turned-out at all times.” This second comment sums-up both his famous pride in his appearance — and also, I think, a measure of the shyness that was a key part of his character.
Back to Blackpool he went, with £130 end-of-service gratuity — basically three grand to spend in his new home-from-home… Not the Black Swan but the White Swan — the basement dive on Bank Hey Street known to its regulars as ‘the Dirty Duck’.
He was working as a delivery driver for the Royal Mail when his first son — also Peter (the Gillatts like to keep things easy to remember) — was born in 1962. But the swift breakdown of his marriage would leave him, effectively, a single parent. That is, until 1966, when a fateful meeting — certainly fateful for me — took place in his front garden on Tarnbrook Drive; as a little beehive’d head appeared — just — over the front hedge.
Lucy — a feisty waitress with a young child of her own — needed somewhere to live and had been told that my future father needed someone to share his house and expenses. It was all very above board. And I’m personally very grateful that they agreed to give it a go. To give a sense of that time, we chose the second picture of Dad on the front of the order of service to reflect how Mum remembers him at their very first meeting — cock o’ the walk; wearing big, black sunglasses and looking just like her hero, Roy Orbison.
In the picture he’s leaning on his old Standard Atlas van. With typical ingenuity, this was fitted out with a table and benches, and would take the newly-minted family on day trips to the Lakes or the Trough of Bowland. And not just the family. Kids from around the neighbourhood would spy the van being loaded up with supplies and shout out: “Are you going out, Mr Gillatt? Can we come?” — and a rag-tag bunch would crowd in for the next doomed attempt to build stepping stones across the river at Dunsop Bridge.
In the late 60s, Dad began work as a driver for Mereside Mushrooms. Another of his favourite memories — again, one that stayed sharp for him throughout his illness — was of making overnight deliveries, along pre-motorway roads, to the morning markets of Manchester. It was a real family affair. Little Peter was scooped-up straight after school; and David, then only two or three, would sit on Mum’s lap — by all accounts chanting ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ as they drove; the film was the Christmas must-see of 1968. It was, perhaps, a life-changing experience, with David vowing that, when he grew up, he was going to be a ‘wowwy driver’.
Of course, this was all before I was born… But I’ve always found it touching to think of that patched-together family, hurtling through the night along unlit roads, but cosy in their mushroomy van as the darkness pressed around them — a little bubble of security and warmth to which even Dad’s failing mind could always, and would always, take him.
A second life-changing experience was triggered by Dad on a balmy August evening in 1970, when he took the then eight-year old Peter to see Blackpool FC play for the first time; the club having just made a return — albeit one that would prove brief — to Division One. It was the first home game of the season, against Liverpool. A nil-nil score line. Mundane to some, perhaps, but up on the Spion Kop, young Peter Gillatt was hit by an emotional lightning bolt. The pleasure centres of his brain fused tangerine, and his fate was sealed.
In a nice bit of mirroring, 40 years later, when Blackpool next made a return to the top echelon of English football — albeit one that would prove brief — it was Peter Jnr who bought the ticket for Peter Snr (along with Mum and a bemused younger brother). It was a fine day out, to be sure, and prompted Dad, in his 80s, to become a season ticket holder once again. Dad’s return to Bloomfield Road meant almost as much to Peter as Blackpool’s return to the Premiership. It certainly lasted longer.
But Dad was always ready to support our adventures and enthusiasms. In 1978, he drove a Transit van full of Peter’s mates down to Knebworth when Genesis headlined the rock festival. A few years later, train tickets given away with Corn Flakes allowed him to take little 11-year-old me to a Bank Holiday Doctor Who convention at Longleat. While I disappeared into a crowd of several hundred thousand lunatics, Dad — who had zero interest in listening to Jon Pertwee talk about Giant Maggots — had to occupy himself for two days straight. Apparently, there’s only so many times you can visit a Doll’s House museum.
Back home, David’s obsession with trucks and trucking hit a new high with the release of the film Convoy, and I recall he and Dad becoming overnight experts in CB radios, illegal in the UK at the time, as they collected all the necessary kit from around the Fylde, and installed a suitably powerful antenna on the back of the house — all without getting a Smokey on their tail.
This sort of endeavour suited Dad down to the ground. Having left the Navy an engineer, it’s no surprise that he loved a new gadget, especially something he could tinker with. Back in the 50s, he returned from Japan with one of the very first Sony transistor radios. In the 70s, his massive model train set was thing of wonder. And, a long time before home wireless networks, he drilled a web of cables that put a phone and TV in almost every room of the house. In his seventies, the Microsoft Train Simulator game on the home PC finally allowed him to drive that steam train from Settle to Carlisle — without ever being called to head office for a bollocking. He would later pester me and Peter for the latest phones and tablets — then immediately lock himself out of them by fiddling in the settings. Even in his last months at home, he’d like to bark a bossy ‘goodnight’ at Alexa.
Of course, the technology that received his most loving attention over the years was his cars. With a Haynes manual at his side, he could disassemble a knackered old engine to its component parts and then reassemble it, gleaming and new — with no more than half-a-dozen nuts and bolts left over. All three kids were, at various times, press-ganged into joining in; dragged out of the house at all hours to sit in a freezing car, to help pump brake fluid or rev an engine. That said, David had it worst, as the only one of us ever to have the drive shaft of a Cortina Mark 2 dropped on his face. Saturday afternoons would be spent wandering the scrap yards of outer Blackpool, watching Dad gleefully scramble up a pile of old bangers to pry an indicator bulb from a 1976 Humber Sceptre.
That’s not to say every project was a success. When asked if he could install a new car stereo in Louise’s Escort, it was a typically breezy: ‘No problem!’. And — indeed — when Peter and Louise returned later that day, there was the new stereo, snugly fitted into the dashboard. However, after driving off into the cold night, Louise soon found her windscreen fogged with ice, which wouldn’t clear even with the front blowers turned to maximum. When later questioned, and asked if he’d fiddled with anything else, Dad replied blithely: “Oh, there wasn’t enough room for the stereo, so I cut a section out of the main air hose to fit it in.”
Once, he proudly pimped his old Humber with dashed ‘Go Faster’ stripes along the side, designed to give the illusion of a car moving at speed. It was with some pleasure that I pointed out that he’d put them on back-to-front, and was now the proud owner of motoring’s only recorded instance of ‘Go Slower’ stripes.
As well as being a great mechanic he was a great driver, and in 60 years on the road he was never once involved in an accident that was his fault, and never once made a claim on his motoring insurance. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of his Alzheimer’s diagnosis was the immediate, enforced removal of his licence. He never quite recovered from that loss of freedom. Though it did mean an end to his complaints about what he would refer to as: “My god, the traffic in this town today,” which meant anything more than one car waiting ahead of him at Waterloo Road traffic lights.
And if he wasn’t working on his car he’d be working on his garden. The gardens at Loftos Avenue were his fiefdom, his pride and joy — and no small achievement. When he built the walls and raised flower beds, he not only laid the bricks, he made the bricks. Each one of hundreds cast from gravelly concrete and left to harden under the baking sun of the long hot summer of 1976. Then there were his rose arbours; the hedge cut into battlements (that would surely cause any psychoanalyst to raise an eyebrow); hanging baskets like supernovas of colour. We’ve tried to capture some of that colour for him today.
And the lawn… Raise and nurtured more carefully, I think, than Iever was. It was the only thing to be combed more often than his own hair. In a shed full of tools and potions devoted to its upkeep, the machinery ran from his three mowers down to a pair of nail scissors — though the latter deployed merely to wind us up. All this tittivating led to a well-remembered put-down, when his brother Alan once made a passing reference to his own lawn. “Excuse me, Alan — your lawn?” huffed Dad. “I have a lawn. You have grass.”
I always thought Dad funny, with a fine, dry wit. When his nephew Norman popped back to Blackpool after just a few months living in the States, Dad was amused to hear him already speaking with a broad American accent, to which he huffed: “Well, I was in Japan for two years, but I don’t speak Japanese.”
He could find humour even in calamity. Such as after the life-changing accident that forced him into early retirement in 1977. At this time, he was a supervisor for Burton’s Bakers, and took a terrible fall in the loading bay, literally from the back of a lorry. But it could have been worse — Dad said he almost pulled heavy trays of cakes down on top of him. “Talk about meeting a sticky end,” he quipped.
This accident meant that Mum became the sole breadwinner in the house, and she and Dad took on a kind of parental shift system for cooking and chores and looking after the kids.
Perhaps this is not the time, nor is it my place, to comment on my Mum and Dad’s relationship. But I can’t dodge it, because it was the single most important adventure of Dad’s life. Suffice to say that you don’t celebrate over half a century together without forging an immensely strong bond — and strong bonds are forged in heat. In many ways, I think Mum and Dad each gave the other what they most needed. Mum’s Celtic fire would chivvy Dad out of his natural diffidence, while Dad’s practical nature provided a great feeling of security. When all is said and done, they made an excellent team.
And I had a happy childhood, but not without its labours. My job in the house was fourfold: To turn the heating up. To turn the heating down. To fetch 40 Lambert & Butler and the Gazette from the shop around the back. And to attempt to answer my Mum’s age-old, unanswerable question: “What’s your Dad buggering-about at now?”
I’ve certainly inherited Dad’s inability to sit still. I’ve also inherited his shyness, and a kind of clumsy self-consciousness when out in public.
A side effect of Dad’s reticence was a peculiar kind of attention-seeking. A sort of vanity mixed with insecurity meant he assumed that, whenever he entered a room, all eyes were on him. It also meant that if, say, you were walking alongside him and tripped over, rather than a quick “Are you okay?”, it was turned into a strange piece of street theatre. “What did you want to do that for, you berk?” he’d say, arms spread as if to welcome the widest possible audience, his voice raised in case a woman watching TV three streets away hadn’t yet heard you’d made a fool of yourself. Even in his late 80s, if you took him out to dinner, he’d shuffle tentatively from the cab to the pub doors, but as soon as we were inside and in front of an audience, his back would straighten, and he’d begin a kind of show-pony trot. Elton John made more low-key entrances at Madison Square Gardens.
This was all incredibly endearing. But sadly, that same vanity would prove his undoing in the end. As his mobility decreased and his illness meant he was less likely to be up-and-about, the family tried to persuade him to start using a walking stick — but he would have none of it, even when I suggested we could get one with a sword hidden inside. In his head, he was still the straight-backed young stoker bounding from the gangplank onto the dock at Hong Kong. And so, when he suffered a relatively minor fall at the end of last year, dislocating his hip, he had no experience of using walking aids, or the wherewithal to start learning. This meant a move to full-time care — something that was never going to sit well with his character.
And so, he did something about it. He took control of the only thing over which he still had control.
The final music of today’s service, My Way, is to pay tribute to Dad’s strength of character — his fundamental bloody-mindedness. This is a man who escaped Luftwaffe bombing and Korean torpedos. He survived the scrubbing out of the bowels of steam engines, the fleshpots of Japan, and death by chocolate; not to mention 40 years of heavy smoking and sunning himself to leather in his garden. In the end, only one force in the world would be strong enough to take him — and that was his own iron willpower. As his character reference once said: “He can be trusted to do a job without supervision.”
It’s odd how, in those last months in hospital and care, the Alzheimer’s sometimes fell away, because we were dealing not with memories but his immediate day-to-day, minute-by-minute needs. You could have conversations with Dad — short though they were — where he felt very present again. And his primary concern was never for himself, but for who was looking after Mum.
On my last visit with him, it was just only the two of us. He was incredibly frail, his speech was slurred, but I could understand him. I prattled on about the car I’d hired that weekend and an accident narrowly avoided the night before. But as that tailed off, the radio in the room took its opportunity to fill the silence. The song was Photograph by Ed Sheeran. And as it played through, it felt particularly intense and relevant, and me and Dad just kind of stared at each other. “God, this is a bit too sentimental for the circumstances,” I said. “Who is it?” he asked. “Ed Sheeran,” I said — and Dad nodded as if he knew perfectly well, and checking if I was as up with the charts as him. Christ, I thought. Is my final conversation with my father going to be about Ed bloody Sheeran?
He dozed off, and after about 10 minutes I decided to leave him to sleep. But the sliding of my chair woke him. “You should go,” he said, taking charge again. I kissed him clumsily on his forehead to imply, I hope, a general ‘thank you for everything’. We’d never been terribly physical with each other, and this was no time to get started.
But as I turned away he said — clearly — “Good luck with whatever you do next.” We knew it was our last meeting — and even at the end he was wishing me well — wishing all of us well.
And what did I say in reply? “And good luck to you too – whatever you do next.” He nodded, fully appreciating, I think, the dark humour of it. We went out, in a sense, on a joke. It was very ‘us’.
So here we are. Dad has ‘crossed the bar’, in old Naval slang.
But, as I was once Petty Officer Gold — so camp!— in the Naval section of my school cadet force; I remain, in a sense, his ranking officer. And so the duty falls to me today to update his Conduct Report.
Appearance? Impeccable. Efficiency? Superior. Character? Oh… Very Good.
Gary Gillatt, March 2020.