Back when I was more French than I am now, I’d get very irritated by American pronunciations of French words. The inability to pronounce (let alone make) croissants was bad enough but it paled in comparison to the horror of the Chase Lounge. Not a corporate sponsorship opportunity, simply a butchering of the beautiful, both in name and appearance, Chaise Longue.
But of course I am nothing if not a hypocrite. Because I also get very irked at the pronunciation of Bernard, as in Saint Bernard and my grandfather Bernard Bradford. The name’s origins are French and the correct French pronunciation would be something close to Bear-Nar. But the British flatten it out to Bur-n’d and that’s always felt totally normal to me. But when I discovered that Americans pronounce it as ‘Bu-NARD’ I cringed. It was like that time in Grange Hill when Roland’s friend Janet called him Ro-LAND. I was thinking about Bernard Cribbins the other day and how very wrong it would be to hear him introduced as Bu-NARD Cribbins.
He was on my mind because he played the station master Albert Perks in the original 1970 film of The Railway Children. I really want to watch it but I can only find the horrible remake available. Growing up it was one of my favourite films with a brilliant cast and a few scenes that are iconic in British film history.
In one, the three children witness a landslide on the railway embankment and bravely try to stop the train before it comes to the blocked line. Bobbie, played by Jenny Agutter whips off her red petticoat/bloomers and waves them at the train which stops just in time before Jenny faints in front of it. In my teenage years I too waved my knickers around in the vicinity of trains, though more commonly in station car parks, and for far less altruistic reasons.
The second moment comes right at the end of the film. Bobbie’s innocent jailbird dad has been released from prison, thanks to the old duffer on the train helping to clear his name. In those final seconds, as the old steam train pulls away and the smoke clears, Bobbie/Jenny sees her father and starts running towards him. ‘Daddy, my Daddy’, she yells and runs towards him and gets swept up in his arms.
I would have loved a moment like that with my Fantasy French Papa. Him stepping off the train in his fabulous Yves Sant-Laurent suit, in a cloud of Gauloises smoke as I run towards him calling, ‘Papa, mon Papa’. But it would have been tricky because back in the 70s there was no channel tunnel so he’d have had to come over on the P&O vomit ferry and then catch a train from Folkestone, changing at Ashford. Not quite so romantic, though he could have bought me 200 Benson & Hedges duty freee.
I think I might be finally getting to the point of all this which is that I’ve been thinking about dads a lot. It’s Father’s Day in just over a week. It’s been a long time since I’ve had one. Like the old stand-up line: I lost my father. Found him again. Dead.
It’s been a few years since I talked about my (SPOILER ALERT) Armenian birth father. After discovering that he was a real person, seeing a photo, and finding out he was a goner, what more was there to know? Quite a lot apparently. A few weeks ago my father’s nephew got in touch out of the blue with an offer to talk about his memories of my father and to share some letters between him and his brother.
Firstly I learned that I’d been pronouncing my father’s name wrong. Yeah, not Dik-ran but Di’Kraan. Doesn’t feel quite right to say it like that. Perhaps my birth father will always be a Dik to me. But I am so grateful to my cousin for sharing his memories and the letters that gave me a real sense of who my father was. It was incredible to discover that some of them were written by Dikran in Paris in June 1965, when Sandy, my birth mother would have been three months pregnant with me. Of course he doesn’t mention her.
It turns out that Dikran and his brother Missak had very strong religious convictions. Very. Strong. The Armenian Apostolic Church is not the Church of England. In the parish of St Mary’s Church, Lenham, a strong conviction would have been invited to stay for a nice cup of tea and a custard cream at the back of the church. Sadly it seems that their zealotry may have isolated them from some family members and is perhaps why Dikran spent many years living alone in his later years.
I always had a suspicion that the more I found out about this man, the less I might admire him, or indeed recognise him in my own character and behaviour. I mean I’ll take the stuff about him being intelligent and articulate but I’m less keen on the authoritarian and seeming condescending aspects of his personality that come out in his letters. I can imagine that if Dikran had been on the train pulling into the station to meet his daughter for the first time he might have been preoccupied with calculating how many minutes late it was and composing a letter to the rail company suggesting ways they could improve and requesting compensation.
But as we talked, I did discover some lovely shared traits with my cousin, though I also think they may apply to anyone who walks through the world with a degree of empathy and an ability to laugh at themselves. Truth is that I know now enough about my birth father to have erased any grand fantasies about him, but too little to actually form a real understanding of him. But it was always more about figuring who I looked like than wondering if my sense of humor comes from him.
So I remain firmly on the side of nurture when it comes to explaining who, and how I am. I am the granddaughter of Bernard Bradford and the daughter of a man who appreciated trains and Bernard Cribbins. And I think that’s enough.