George William Bryant: a good life
I wanted to write a post about my Dad on what would have been his birthday, as I wrote one about my Mum, Iris, on hers, but this time I hesitated. I adored both my parents equally, but coming to write this, I’m uncomfortably aware that I don’t know as much about my Dad’s early life as I do about my Mum’s.
I wonder about that. Was it because I was less close, as a child, to his family and therefore didn’t hear all the childhood tales which were part of my growing years in the East End? Or was it simply the difference between them as people, where my Mum talked freely and openly and ALL THE TIME while my Dad was more of an observer, watching the females take the limelight with great affection and appreciation. Afterwards, I decided it was silly anyway. I know loads about my Dad; not necessarily the accurate details about the streets he lived on and the schools he attended, but all the important things about the man he was.
George William Bryant was born on 9th November 1929 in Southwark, the eldest son of George and Elizabeth Bryant. Like Mum’s family, they were very much working class, and living close to the Thames, the occupations on the various birth, marriage and death certificates in the family reflect the importance of the river in their lives. My great-grandfathers were both porters and waterside labourers and my grandfather was a furnace-man in a metal working factory, a relatively well-paid occupation for a young man. It was also lethal, and a lifetime’s exposure to dust, high temperatures, and chemicals left him with damaged lungs which eventually led to his death.
My grandparents lived in Jamaica Road in Bermondsey when my father was born, and never moved far away from there. They always lived in rented flats and raised four sons, George, William, Johnny and Tom, in similar cramped conditions to my Mum’s family across the water.
My Dad’s childhood stories were all about the river. He could remember swimming in the Thames with his brothers, fishing with his Dad and mudlarking along the banks with his friends. The river was special to Dad, and in later life he passed on something of that reverence and affection to my Mum and then to us. The sight of the Thames on a visit to London still touches my heart in a very special way and I know I got that from him.
Like most London children, Dad was evacuated during the war. His father was in the army, and as Tommy was still a very young baby, his mum was able to go with them to a farm in Kent. I don’t know as much detail as I do of my Mum’s evacuation days, but I do know that my father loved living in the country, and it was a love that stayed with him all his life.
Like my Mum, Dad left school at fourteen. I don’t know much about his schooling, apart from the fact that during evacuation, it didn’t really happen at all. For most of his life, Dad was self-conscious about his lack of education. It gave him a determination to make up for it as an adult. Like Mum, he was a voracious reader, and introduced me to all his favourite thrillers and war stories. From his bookshelves, I devoured Alistair Maclean, Neville Shute and Douglas Reeman. He loved military and naval history and through him I discovered CS Forester, Patrick O’Brien and Bernard Cornwell. He also read non-fiction history, especially biographies, and he was utterly devoted to Charles Dickens. Somewhat eccentrically for a working-class boy from Southwark, he had a passion for beautiful looking books as well, and one of his only personal extravagances in later life were several bound sets of his favourite authors, which he would read on a regular basis.
Dad’s early jobs were in the building trade, interrupted by National Service in the army. When he came out, he went back to building and decorating. He doesn’t seem to have been much of a planner in those days, living at home, paying rent to his parents and the rest of his pay on enjoying himself. He liked going to the pub and going to dances, and had a big group of friends and a love affair that broke his heart. He was still suffering when his best friend, a lad named Bobby Mooney, started trying to get him together with a friend of his fiancee, a girl from the East End who had just come out of the Land Army. My Dad resisted for a long time, but he was best man at Bobby and Violet’s wedding where Iris Taylor was maid of honour, and meeting her changed everything.
My parents courtship was less straightforward than it should have been, as my Mum was involved in a long-distance relationship with a young German, a former POW who had settled near Cambridge, a story I’ve told elsewhere. She always used to tease my Dad, saying that she eventually chose him for his good looks. Actually I think she may have had a point, he looked like a film star.
With marriage, came the need for more financial security, and my Dad took a job as a railway porter. Eventually, encouraged by my Mum, who had all the confidence in him that he lacked for himself, he applied to what was then the Post Office and later became British Telecom, and trained as a telephone engineer. The money was less to start with, but got better as he obtained more and more qualifications. It was also a very steady job, and made it possible for them to start a family.
My Dad loved fatherhood. He was the most involved father out of all my friends families. Growing up, I had no idea how unusual he was, in a generation where raising children was still women’s work. He was there at every crucial point of my upbringing, taking turns with nappies, bottle feeding and bathing as if it was the most natural thing in the world. As we grew older, he became an expert in managing shift work so that he could be home early enough to take us to the park, or swimming, or to play tennis. I spent more time with my Dad than any of my friends.
My parents were poor at times, in a way we find difficult to understand now, but they were good managers. They never owned a house, but saved their money and made sure we had everything we needed, and as we grew older, and money became more available, we had holidays and days out and although we never toured the world, I have so many happy memories of exploring castles and climbing rocks and paddling with him.
But there was more to Dad than just a father. He had interests and hobbies and for a shy man, he loved people. A self-taught but talented amateur artist, I can’t remember a time when he didn’t have a sketch book with him, and his paintings and drawings adorned our walls. He was very fit, a powerful swimmer, probably from his boyhood, growing up by the river, and a very good tennis player. I’ve never known where he learned that, but he used to play with my uncle every weekend through the summer.
Dad was also a very spiritual man. I don’t know if church featured much in his childhood, but we were raised in it, and so much of my young days centred around church activities at St Paul’s in Old Ford. Dad was a church warden and a member of a lot of church groups. As a child, singing in the choir and acting in the nativity plays, going to church was so natural to me that I never really gave much thought to Dad’s faith, but as he grew older and moved to different churches and different activities, I had a better understanding of him. His was a gentle faith, which took into account difference. He never argued religion, never really talked much about it at all. It was just part of who he was.
Dad also loved to fish, and as we lived within easy reach of the canal, and several lakes, he spent many happy hours sitting peacefully with his rod. He made friends fishing, especially after his retirement, and when I went home on visits, he would always find an excuse to take a walk along the tow path, especially after I had the children, proud of his family and wanting to show us off to all his friends, including the lock keeper.
Music was another important part of Dad’s life. He never learned to play an instrument, although he could pick out a tune on a piano very well, but he adored classical music, and introduced it to my sister and I from a very early age. We had an enormous old gramophone in a cabinet in our living room, and Dad built up a treasured collection of classical albums. He loved Schubert and Mozart and Chopin, but his absolute favourite was Grieg, and the sound of that piano concerto makes me feel as though I’m in a room with him to this day.
Dad was a devoted husband, who visibly adored my Mum, even while teasing her about her eccentricities. They shared a lot of interests, including history, dancing, and going for long walks. Other pastimes, they did separately, and I’ve always thought it might have been one of the reasons their marriage was so successful that they were never joined at the hip but both had other interests and other friends.
I had no idea how badly my Dad longed for grandchildren, until I presented him with two, quite late on. He was involved from the start, drove me mad during both pregnancies by trying to wrap me in cotton wool, and became a beloved Papa (my son couldn’t say Grandpa, so that became his name) to both of them, babysitting whenever he could, reading endless stories and spending hours drawing and painting with them.
Dad was a very physically fit man, and the news that he had prostate cancer in his seventies, was a shock although we were not especially worried at the start. The disease progressed with horrible speed, and the quality of care received was hampered by his stubborn reluctance to allow my sister and I to get involved until it was too late. For Dad, it was his job to take care of us, not the other way around, and when he finally caved in and agreed to move closer to one of us, he had too little time left.
He came to the Isle of Man. From the day we first moved here, Dad fell passionately in love with the place, and was on a plane three or four times a year to spend as much time with us as he could. A city boy, he had always yearned to live in the country, and especially by the sea, and I think he would have made the move much sooner if my Mum had not been so firmly devoted to London. We found him an apartment overlooking the sea, and although he had only a few months left to live, it gave him pleasure to sit in the big bay window and watch the waves and the seagulls swooping over. He loved the slower pace of life of the island, and it was a grief to me that he wasn’t able to enjoy it for longer.
Dad died in Nobles Hospital on 13th June 2007, just after the end of TT. I sat with him in his room on the day before he died, watching The Quiet Man with John Wayne. It was one of his favourite old movies, and I’d watched it with him so many times throughout my childhood. I didn’t know then it would be for the last time, but it still made him laugh out loud.
When my sister and I were going through his things after his death, there were so many things that made us laugh and cry, because they were so typical of him. There was a mountain of artwork and artists materials, and my daughter still uses a lovely wooden refillable watercolour set belonging to him. There were more coats than a man could wear in one lifetime. Dad spent his life searching for the perfect coat, and he very clearly never threw one away. There was a huge collection of classical music CDs and old movies on DVD. We found paperwork, neatly filed, telling the story of several adoptions, including a boy at an orphanage in Burma who still wrote to my Dad, who had funded his schooling and an elephant in a sanctuary in South Africa. After his death, we adopted a koala saved from wildfires in Australia and named it George Bryant in his honour. He’d have liked that.
George William Bryant is buried with my Mum on a windy hillside in Braddan, with horses grazing in the neighbouring field. I go up there regularly to take flowers to them both, and in good weather I sit for a while and enjoy the quiet. Dad would have been happy he was buried near us, he was more interested in people than places, and he wanted to be where we were.
I remember him as a quiet man, who tended to take a back seat in his very noisy family, but a man of principle, who would say what he wanted and wasn’t afraid to express a controversial opinion if he thought it was the right thing to do. A generous man, he would give both time and money to anybody in need. After his death, we received letters from all over the world, and discovered that for years he’d been an active member of a local International Club which was run through his church for overseas students and young people working in London, and he had friends in China, Indonesia and various parts of Africa who cared enough to write expressing their sorrow at his death. He was an animal lover, devoted to his various pets over the years, and supporting wildlife charities. And he was a family man, who loved his wife, his daughters and his grandchildren.
Happy ninety-first birthday Dad. I wish you’d lived long enough to hold my first published book in your hands, you’d have been so proud, but you read enough to know what I was writing and you loved it. You also had a lot to do with why I write what I do. Your life touched so many people, and they remember you as a good man. That’s not a bad epitaph.