I frequently heard dad whistle as most men did in the 1940s and 1950s. His favourite whistler was the great Ronnie Ronalde of world fame. Had my dad been alive today, it would have made him immensely proud to know that one of my first wedding presents when I married Sheila in 2012 was the latest CD and a signed biography from my friend Ronnie Ronalde, who sadly died in 2015. Ronnie was a British music hall singer and was regarded as being 'the world’s finest professional whistler' (‘If I was a Blackbird’ being his most popular singing and bird-whistling recorded song).
In the 1950’s it was usual for every male worker to whistle as they laboured in the mills and the town factories, down the pit, on the farm or doing whatever job they did. Apart from Librarians and Undertakers, it was considered customary for everyone to whistle while they worked. Indeed. I never once saw either a postman or a milkman doing their morning rounds without announcing their emerging presence with a whistling tune as they opened your gate and walked down your pathway towards your front door. My mother often told me of neighbours who would use the regularity of the postman and the milkman doing their morning rounds as alarm clocks and 'Knockers up'.
Indeed, between 23rd June 1940 and 29th September1967, one of the most popular radio programmes that workers would listen to in their workplace was ‘Whistle While You Work’. The radio programme was even transmitted twice daily on the B.B.C. and national listening by the nation's workforce seemed mandatory.
Back to my father. The only occasion my father would sing would be when he bathed. Me and my sisters Mary and Eileen would listen outside the bathroom, and as dad sang, we tittered away, pulling faces at him behind the door and calling him ‘Silly old sausage’ in a whispered tone of voice. Such was one of the few ways we children could ever ‘get one up' on bossy adults.
In 1981, ‘The Fureys’ released their most successful single ‘When you were Sweet Sixteen’. It instantly became a worldwide hit, reaching Number 14 on the’U.K. Singles Chart’. Although my father had been acquainted with this song all his life, the Furies recording of the song was his favourite version. The song was written by James Thornton and was published in 1898, almost thirty years before my dad was born. The song had been a huge hit song in Vaudeville. It has a long recording history that includes numerous popular singers. It has long been considered a standard of barbershop quartets over the past century.
‘When You Were Sweet Sixteen’ was inspired by Thornton's wife, Bonnie. When she asked her husband if he still loved her, Thornton replied, "I love you like I did when you were sweet sixteen." Bonnie Thornton, a popular vaudeville singer who sang many of her husband's compositions, introduced the song in her act. The lyrics of ‘When you were sweet sixteen’ are typical of the sentimental ballads of the 1890s. The form is known as, ‘strophic’, comprising of two verses and a chorus. The song sold over one million copies of sheet music during its earlier years.
The second song I sing today in celebration of my late father’s posthumous birthday is ‘Some Enchanted Evening’; a show tune from the 1949 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical ‘South Pacific’. This was one of the few non-cowboy or religious films dad ever saw.
This song was ‘the single biggest popular hit to come out of any Rodgers and Hammerstein show’. It is a three-verse solo for the leading male character, Emile, in which he describes seeing a stranger, yearning and knowing that he will see her again, and dreaming of her laughter. He sings that when you find your 'true love', you must 'fly to her side and make her your own’.
Today would have been my dear father’s 103rd birthday. He died aged 75 years in 1991. Dad was neither singer nor scholar and was brought up in circumstances of extreme poverty in County Kilkenny, Ireland. He was taken out of formal schooling at the age of 12 years and became a full-time worker to support the family household..
His characteristics and qualities as a man left much to be admired in some areas of his life while being nothing short of remarkable in other areas. In short; I'd have to accurately describe his character makeup as having two distinct sides, and where public and private display varied in marked contradiction. Dad was always a strict Roman Catholic and disciplinarian, and once he decided upon something, he never changed his mind (even when he was wrong). His religious beliefs led him not to attend my second wedding; an action he regretted and apologised to me for ten years after the event. Like his favourite film star, John Wayne, my father falsely believed that 'to change one's mind' or 'apologise' was evidence of indecisiveness and weakness of character. He could lose his temper whenever crossed by either wife or child but was seen in public by every neighbour as being a hard worker, a good father and an honest husband. He was viewed by everyone who knew him as being a man who could be trusted implicitly; someone who was never known to break his word once given.
Dad was a proud yet humble man who never boasted or tried to big himself up. During his early twenties and after I was born, my father played soccer for his home County of Kilkenny before going on to play for the Irish National Football Squad. I was ten years of age before I ever found out, as he never said anything about his past. I only discovered his international football past after he had gone back to County Kilkenny during the early 1950s on one of his rare visits back home to the city where he was born. According to the Kilkenny News (a copy that was sent back to my mother in England by a family member who lived in Kilkenny), when my father embarked from the train that pulled into the 'Kilkenny Railway Station', having gotten wind of his proposed home visit, the city dignitaries and local press decided to give him a surprise hero's 'welcome home'. As dad alighted from the train, he was met by the striking up of a brass band that was there on the station platform to greet their ‘Quiet Man’ and home-grown footballer of the late 30s and early 40s. According to the Irish press, the brass band marched him uptown, where he intended to spend a few weeks with some old friends he regarded as family. Dad returned home after his Irish break but never said anything of the city welcome he had received until my mother showed him the newspaper-cutting she’d been sent in his absence.
Other occasions that stuck in my memory that marked my father out as being far from the simple and ordinary man he made himself out to be, must include his attitude to work and always doing whatever was necessary providing for his large family. His dedication to his perceived duty as a husband and father included working a second job often, working overtime always and working through his paid holiday period as a general rule, so that mum could take herself and children away to the seaside for a week.
There were seven children in our household and we never had a spare penny over from one week to the next. However much overtime dad worked down the pit, it was never enough and this week's family food and provisions would be obtained on 'the tick' from the local grocer (Harry Hodgson, God bless him) by my father's 'next week's wages'.
There was a time when I was aged 7-8 years when the colliery where dad worked went on strike for three weeks. Being a father of a large family, my father refused to strike and was the only man to cross the picket line. Afterwards, when I pulled him up on this behaviour (following me being made the youngest trade union shop steward in Great Britain at the age of 18 years), he replied," Billy, principles are the privilege of the rich! Putting bread on the table for my wife and children will always be my priority before pleasing my workmates". I suppose that it was a mark of the respect his working colleagues afforded him both before and after the strike that allowed him ‘never to be sent to Coventry’, except for one or two other work colleagues.
During the last ten years of his life, although not a gardener, dad loved cutting the lawn by a manual mower, and he would daily cycle the four miles return journey from Liversedge to Cleckheaton Catholic Church spending the afternoon mowing the lawn area around the church grounds and tidying up. When it was finished, the grass area looked as though it had undergone a manicure. Part of dad's excessive workmanship in mowing the church lawns was 'pride in his work' and the remaining reason was 'trying to better another man who cut the church lawn at Heckmondwike's Catholic Church'. I cannot prove it, but I strongly suspect that both Catholic Church lawn cutters were so competitive that they secretly checked on the quality of each other's labour.
Wherever you are Dad, you remain loved by your eldest child and the other six children you and mum brought into the world. It would please me immeasurably to think that God allows you time off from mowing the heavenly lawns, so that you may look down on your eldest son today and be able to hear me sing your two favourite songs. Forgive the emotion in my voice and the tears in my eyes, Dad, whenever I sing these two songs. All of your children love you and if you could look down on them today, you would be so proud to be their father. Happy heavenly birthday, Dad. Love Billy, Mary, Eileen, Patrick, Peter, Michael and Susan. xxxxxxx
Love and peace Bill xxx