Sean's affectionate piece on Steve McQueen reminded me (bear with me here) of my grandfather. He was also passionate and full of life. He drove like there was no tomorrow and was a ladies man. He was a fiercely competitive (is there any other kind?) sportsman and - in his 1940s/50s way - ineffably cool. In the military I suspect he was also inclined to fret and fool about under discipline. At least one such episode sadly left him, as we would say, "disabled" (and as he said, without a shred of self-pity "a cripple").He spent a lot of time with me for the year or so before I started school. He had replaced his beloved cricket and table tennis with pigeon racing. It satisfied his competitive spirit and (by its cold eugenic culling) his ruthlessness. He was president of the National Flying Club and adjudicated on disputed races. Big money rides on racing pigeons in prizes and side bets, so disputes can be serious. He was only appealed against once and promptly appointed himself chairman of the appeals committee, dealing contemptuously with the man who dared question his judgement. That story almost ended in the High Court, as it fell foul of nemo iudex in suo causa (no man shall be judge in his own cause); one of the two principles of natural justice acknowledged by the Common Law.
He used to take the awed three and four year old me for training runs in his Humber Hawk, releasing birds from a basket in the boot by the lakeside at Ellesmere. The car was a tame beast by the standards of my Vittoria (whom he would have adored) but was a force of nature in his hands. He raced his pigeons home and - implausibly on twisting country roads - would sometimes beat them. Racing pigeons fly at 60 mph and (as he thought) in straight lines. What possessed him even to try? How did he accept winning as merely his due?
Years later scientists found that homing pigeons avoid the apparent strain of using their natural navigation skills by learning landmarks to follow on repeat runs - even tracking the roads beneath them. I laughed out loud when I read that; Granddad's feats were theoretically possible! I tried (on clear roads in the early light with my first sports car) to reproduce them and could not. My trip computer showed I came up short of beating a pigeon. How he would have laughed, by the way, at being commemorated in such a boyish fashion.
At five years old, he cast me off without a word when his next grandchild came along. I saw him constantly in company of course, but we never talked much again until I got to know him better in his final years. He always had a favourite. He would have been contemptuous if he thought that it bothered any of us. Life was hard and toughness was the answer. He had no time for "softness" and someone he thought "soft" would simply cease to exist for him. Nor would he miss them.
His wife - more educated and better read than him - would tell a different story. He was a bad husband in many ways and they spoke to each other in terms that made at least one young grandson doubt the wisdom of marriage itself. Yet, when he finally gentled towards the end, she needled and provoked him until he roared; observing with a smile, "the fire's not out yet."
She tried to raise her sons to be (at least by comparison) "New Men", but with mixed results. He dominated their raising with a strap of leather; wielded with right good will. As a father, I agonised about discipline. When my daughters misbehaved and blamed each other I suffered minor agonies in my attempts to do perfect justice. Granddad simply formed a rapid view based on his own judgement, acted accordingly and never spared a second for doubt. I suspect I did more wrong in allowing myself to be played upon, than he did in his ruthless practicality.
His last advice to me was;
"I regret nothing I did, but I regret lots of things I didn't do - like the trip to Japan I cancelled. Your Mum and Dad taught you to be careful - especially with money. That's fine, up to a point, but try not to let it spoil your life. I will die with money in the bank but only because I can't get there to take it out and blow it!"
I owe the joys of Vittoria to that advice, and much besides. Thanks, Granddad.
For all his dashed-by-envy business success, my grandfather was a tough member of the Northern working class. Were he fully alive today (as opposed to those fragments of him flaring erratically in my genes) I suspect he would shock most of my readers. Especially the women. I also suspect that much of what's wrong with modern society is to do with with passing of his, and Steve McQueen's, model of manhood.