A eulogy for my father

A eulogy for my father, William Powrie Herbert (8th August 1937 – 15th March 2014)

(Delivered at his funeral service, St Bride’s RC Church, Monifieth, 26th March 2014)

Thank you all very much for coming. Dad would be delighted and honoured to see you – not that he would let on. I’m going to try the impossible: to talk about his life for just ten minutes, something I suspect I will take the rest of my life to do properly.

I’ve met a lot of clever people, but I’ve met very few as intelligent as my father: he saw what you were saying before you’d said it; he saw through what you were saying; and, if you weren’t careful, he saw through you as well.

I’ve met gentler people – he told you exactly what he thought when he wanted to. But I’ve never met such a gentle man. As many of you have told me, he was a gentleman.

I’ve met funny people, but I never laughed as much as I did with my dad, and at such stupid jokes. Even in the hospital he was doing the old ‘Dinna bather aboot me’ routine he got from his father, the one that ended with ‘Eh’ll jist hae hauf a Waallace’s peh.’ If Wallace’s had sold half of thae hauf a pehs, they’d be rolling in it.

I never met anyone as loving to his family – he gave that unconditional love we all need. That came from his family, the tight nest of four brothers and a sister, and from his beloved mother, who died before he was thirty. It was not a rich family in the ordinary sense of the word, but he never spoke of his childhood without joy and gratitude.

And I never met anyone as intelligent, as kind, as funny, as loving, as my dad. To be all those things is a kind of wisdom, isn’t it? I think he was a wise man.

He had a gift – no, a genius – for friendship. He was my best friend – there was practically nothing we couldn’t say to each other, and I already miss those conversations. You could hardly walk down the street in the Ferry or up the Town without him bumping into person after person he knew. And not just knew – nine times out of ten, he liked them, and they liked him.

When I was wee I sometimes thought he knew everyone in Dundee. As I grew up, I began to think he was Dundee. Hard-working (he gave 50 years without stint), hard-drinking when he wanted to be (and there are plenty of stories there – this is not the place), but not a hard man, in that empty sense. He was my model, my idea, my ideal of how a man should be, with his family, with his job, with his city.

I also first saw the world through his eyes. In the Merchant Navy in his teens, around the world half a dozen times by the time he was 21, he filled my childhood with extraordinary images:

Going over to New York to join his ship with Jimmy Ingram, a teenager on his first time overseas from Dundee, and going to a bar that turned out to be an exact copy of a Dundee bar, full of fellow Dundonians.

Going down to the Demerara River in British Guyana and two lads saying they’d swim across the river back to their ship, and one of them drowning.

Coming through the Suez Canal into the Indian Ocean and feeling that heat for the first time: after a filthy shift in the engine rooms, getting showered to go ashore, putting on his white uniform, stepping out on deck, and everything being instantly soaked through with sweat.

Waking up after a night out in Calcutta to find himself lying on a railway track, with his head on one rail, and his feet on another, and looking round to see the train approaching.

On deck in the Far East surrounded by ocean, watching the dolphins race the prow and waiting for that green flash as the sun went down into the waves.

Of course most of you knew him as a Timex man – 1961-1993. A Precision Engineer. How exactly that described him. He was precise about everything – how he dressed, how he behaved; and he was an engineer: he knew how everything worked, from the smallest parts of a watch, to a shift of workers, to a factory, to the twists of international business that brought about the closure of Timex.

That should have been the end – in his mid fifties without a job. But he invented himself once again. His people skills as much as his business experience got him to Ireland, where he spent ten years running a factory in the Gaeltacht of Donegal making and marketing printed circuit boards. And that was mostly a happy time: he made a whole new set of very dear friends, still close to this day, and I would take my daughter out there for idyllic summers on the beach at Derrybeg.

But he had a serious, life-threatening illness before he was sixty, and after he retired and came back to Dundee, he had another, and another. His retirement was shot through with illnesses, sometimes very rare – nothing off the peg for Dad. He ended up knowing as much as the doctors about what was wrong with him. But he took such pleasure in being alive, he bounced back every time – he made cats with their nine lives look like amateurs in resurrection.

And it was often a happy time – his love for family and friends saw to that. For my mum, his wife of 54 years and the love of his life; for his brothers and sister and their families – they just seemed to grow closer and closer; and for his granddaughter, Izzie, his ‘wee darling’, the ‘light of his life’.

He never gave up, even when his quality of life was slowly declining; even in this last crisis, he was making plans for the future. When I left him on the Friday, never imagining it was for the last time before that call we all dread, he looked me in the eye and gave me the thumbs up.

Because his death was so sudden, I want you to know that when we were called back, and sat with him while he went, he was at peace. It was a gentle death: in like a lion, out like a lamb. I’ve thought since how his dad, my Grandad, died before he was forty, and how lucky I’ve been to have him a dozen more years.

He always wanted to sail up the river back to his home town. On his last voyage in the Merchant Service, there was a storm and he never managed it. I’ve been thinking about that Robert Louis Stevenson line, ‘Home is the sailor, home from the sea.’ Well, this is his last ship, and he’s making his last voyage today. I’m very glad you’re all here with us to welcome him home, into our hearts and into our memories.

I’m going to finish with a short poem he wrote back when he was seventy. He was very ill at the time, and I don’t think he expected to live. It’s just four lines, but it shows how precisely he saw the brevity of our lives, the randomness of our entrances and exits. I think we may put it on his gravestone:

I had to come
I had no say
I was not here
I could not stay

About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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7 Responses to A eulogy for my father

  1. SachinManan says:

    what brilliant flow of words.. loved the eulogy

  2. So sorry for your loss. Such a wonderful life, brilliantly told.

  3. freemanjp says:

    Thank you for sharing this perfect tribute to a wonderful person. Sincere condolences – and congratulations, not just on the eulogy but on coming from such brilliant stock.

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  6. This was just lovely. He sounds like a great man. I had a tear in my eye reading it and I remembered how my father-in-law was desperate for a Wallace’s pie when he was ill at home. A relative kept saying he’d bring one before visits, but he forgot. He died without getting another Wallace’s pie. The relative visited my mother-in-law once he had died. He brought a Wallace’s pie.

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