Growing up, I didn’t think of my father as being a particularly creative person. He once took a course on sketching, and then brought a pad of paper with him when we went on holiday in the summer. He drew a couple of windmills, competently, but never really seemed to get into it. If I’d have been a bit more thoughtful as a teenager, I might have realized that gardening was a creative pursuit, and that both my parents had a talent for it - but gardening wasn’t action-packed like sport was, and so I dismissed it as boring. Things were happening fast outside our garden gate: I had places to go, and people to see, and I didn’t realize what they were growing until much later. Dad designed beds and borders, marked them out and dug them over, and grew neat rows of carrots and onions, raspberries and redcurrants. I would have described my mother as creative, with her many different needlework skills, but Dad’s kind of gardening seemed more like just something he did at weekends, rather than an art form.
My father had been a chemistry grad student, I’d seen his PhD thesis on the shelf downstairs. He spent three years fluorinating platinum metals and then studying their crystal structures, while at the same time getting interested in third world poverty (as it was then known). Fluorine chemistry is tricky: he had to make a lot of his own glassware, to keep the fluorine gas moving through the reaction vessels, without leaking out and poisoning the surroundings. When he graduated, he retrained as a teacher. When you want people to think about things like third world poverty, he reasoned, then the earlier you get to them the better. First he taught science to a lot of elementary schoolkids, and then later he took a job teaching other people how to teach science to even more elementary schoolkids. And all the while my sister and I were growing up. Every day for thirteen years my Dad either took me to school, or, in later years, left me at the dining table to get there myself, and every day for thirteen years, he always said exactly the same thing as we parted: Be good. I estimate that he must have said that to me about three thousand times in my life. Be good. Be good. Be good.
Dad always ends up leading the groups he joins. He says it’s because no-one else wants to do it, but I think it’s because he likes being chair: shaping the discussion, guiding, planting seeds, questioning, seeing what the group comes up with. They think they’re getting a leader, but what they actually get is a teacher. Seed-planting. I once asked him in the car what he thought about immigrants, hoping for some in-depth analysis and explanation. “They should be welcomed,” was all that he said. While he washed the dishes and I dried them, I would ask him endless questions about how things worked, but somehow I always ended up with more questions than I started. I learned from my father that people always have to figure things out for themselves. Not that he ever actually taught me that of course; he let me figure it out for myself. Meanwhile, Jen, aged 15, did a lot of slamming doors and storming up stairs - but when her coursework deadlines were upon her, Dad would be there, her undersecretary and advisor, printing, fetching, carrying, suggesting.
After leaving home, and spending many years looking back at him, I think I now understand what form my father’s creativity takes. His medium isn’t charcoal, or research, or glass blowing, nor really even the vegetable patch. It’s people. As the rhubarb sprouted year after year, the beds filled out, and the perennials were moved, pruned, tied, fed and watered, Jen and I were encouraged to grow in the same way. You think teenagers try your patience? Well, so does laburnum, and the squirrels that live in it. You don’t want to over-water or under-water the pots, and the ties on the redcurrants need re-tying, and the runner beans need poles. Gardening takes years of persistence, making endless small adjustments in between growth spurts that seem to happen naturally but that never go unnoticed. How do you keep the roses blooming and the raspberries returning and the saplings from leaning? Be good. Be good. Be good.