A dictionary of my Dad

Last Wednesday my dad, George Bowbrick, died. He died in a hospital in Dublin a week after we learnt he had a bone tumor and a secondary lung cancer. He’d been in real pain for quite a long time and various stupid doctors had diagnosed this pain as ‘frozen shoulder’, which is common and non-fatal. That’s another story.

My Dad belonged to the generation that reached adulthood right after the Second World War. He lived through the war – and right in the thick of the blitz – in Blackfriars, close to the river. His father died young after years of illness and incapacity, caused in part by the privations of his first world war service. His mother, Nora, by my dad’s account a funny and indomitable woman, from the far end of the Western end of Ireland, fed and clothed and sheltered the seven of them entirely on her own (she died early herself – diabetes and decades of hard work – so I never met her).

Like his brothers and sisters he left school at fourteen and went to work (at Bennie Lifts, now defunct). Later, having done his National Service in Japan and Hong Kong, he got a job on the buses, at Vauxhall Bus Garage (on the 10s and the 73s if I’m remembering it right). That’s where he met my Mum – she was a conductor too, a couple of years older than him and not long out of the army (the ATS) herself. She’d come to Britain as a teenager from rural Kilkenny in the green middle of Ireland before the end of the war.

Along the way he acquired a love of learning and began to improve himself. He would always credit his extraordinary Aunt Emma for this. Even as a kid, his brothers and sisters thought he was funny, a bit unworldly. These days we might have called him a nerd. He collected stamps (once Terry and Laurie, the tearaway younger brothers, sold his whole collection for a shilling and he cried). Books became a passion: in his study in West Cork, where I’m writing this, I just counted 55 dictionaries (I’m not counting the dozens of encyclopaedias, guides, handbooks, companions, yearbooks, almanacs and gazetteers either).

Knowledge – proper, factual knowledge – stood, for my Dad, for freedom. Freedom from ignorance and poverty and the arbitrary nature of existence. We shared that love of knowledge but I think the difference is a lack of urgency: I guess I can take it or leave it. For him it was life or death.

His commitment to learning went a long way. He always used to tell us that he was leaving his body to medical science and I suppose I thought he was at least half serious. It turns out, of course, that he was wholly serious and, as I write, he’s serving a useful purpose at the University Hospital in Cork City.

After he died we learnt that a condition of his deal with the medics was that we had to provide a coffin – a coffin we’d never see – for his journey in a van from Dublin to Cork. The fact that we wound up paying the bloody undertakers a thousand Euro for this pointless box would have made him laugh and shout, I’m sure.

The Irish friends and family who adopted him here in Cork – good Catholics all – are pretty sure he’s up in heaven looking down on us now and they reckon this would serve the old atheist right.

He was strong and happy and loving and resourceful and never without an opinion. Me and my Mum, my family and all his friends, old and new, will miss him madly.

George Joseph Bowbrick, 6th November 1931 – 7th March 2007.