Some Lessons from my Dad
My Dad, Thomas Joseph James Guthrie, known as Tom, Tommy, or Dad, was well groomed, a man of the Old School of Gentlemen. Incredibly handsome, muscular and vain, well dressed (he once bought the clothes and shoes of Clark Gable at an auction and bragged they were exactly the same size) closely shaved, his moustache trimmed (and sometimes blacked with mascara) hair neatly parted, his mechanics hands scoured and always scrupulously manicured, a task he meticulously performed daily. All his life, he feared people would harshly judge his lowly background. His father died from alcoholism when he was 18 months old, there was another bairn younger then he, his sister Pat, and six others older.
Their home was a two bedroom up and down tenement house wedged between an abattoir and a rubbish dump in a cold God forsaken place called West Hartlepool in the north of England, a town dominated by the steelworks, and steeped in poverty, violence, and alcohol. He plotted his departure from an early age, and left at 14 for London. He was determined to leave behind what he called 'the smell of poverty', which included his strong North Country accent, which had initially prevented him from gaining work as a doorman at the Dorchester Hotel in London. He was told he was good looking enough to 'keep the ladies happy' but his accent was a definite no-no. He set about resolving this issue immediately and enrolled himself in eloqution classes, something he insisted we, his three children, all attend much later in life. We spoke with South African accents, another accent he felt limited one's options.
He used his time at the Dorchester well, earning good tips, observing the mannerisms and dress of the wealthy, eventually landing a job in silver service in the dining room. This was where he learned how to set a table with starched white linen, laden with silverware, bone china and glass - a formality he loved, and our table was always ‘set well’. He scorned paper napkins, and no matter how informal the meal we always had linen napkins (a tradition I still uphold today in my own home) and we all had our own engraved napkin rings. He loved good glassware too.
He painstakingly created a new persona for himself, no longer the grubby, hungry ill educated kid from the north, he enrolled in night classes, and the first book he bought was The Complete Self Educator. He also bought an encyclopaedia which eh read cover to cover, and a book called, I think, Whittakers Almanac. One of the books he read every single day, until just before his death, was the Oxford Dictionary, and every day he learned a new word. He wrote stories and poetry which he recited, he had the voice of a poet, he created dramatic pauses, he often cried with emotion at words and music and he sang with a beautiful barritone. He never read music but taught himself to play the piano, he played the mouth organ and organised sing-alongs as often as possible, distributing song sheets he had typed himself (something else he taught himself to do, with the aid of a Readers Digest booklet). He was a dancer, and he and my Mother danced like professionals, always the first on the dance floor, and at every opportunity in the kitchen. He always had a joke ready to make people laugh - I now think he did this to hide a deep seated nervousness he never got over - and he told mesmerising stories. He charmed women and men alike, although the latter were sometimes envious of the attention he attracted. Women flocked to him for his charm but he never strayed. At their 50th wedding anniversary and their 65th, my mother acknowledged him for never ‘turning away from her’. She thought Tom Guthrie was the Catch of Her Life, and she never considered herself beautiful but had somehow managed to snag the Best Man in Town. But he? He thought he had the most beautiful, loving, wise, kind, smart, funny woman in the world, and he adored her.
I was blessed.