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Tobacco, mints and perfect pitch – that’s my dad.

Stanley Frederick, now there’s a good old Edwardian name. An only child who spent a lot of time with his grandfather, he could play chess and read ‘The Times’ at the age of five. These early experiences obviously ‘maketh the man’ for he gained a place at Lincoln College, Oxford where he read Latin, Greek and philosophy or Greats as it’s apparently known
He was sporty too – although enthusiastic rather than talented and, forever the eccentric, he kept shedding big toe nails whilst playing rugger and took to tying them on with string.
His huge calves came from long distance cycling and, having met and fallen in love with mum, he cycled most weekends from Oxford back to Portsmouth to see her.
He became classics master at his old school, Portsmouth Grammar where he earned the nickname of Elfie on account of his large ears. Over the years, inevitably, Elfie became corrupted to Alfie and he used to get letters from parents addressed to Mr A. MacGregor. But to colleagues and family he was simply known as Mac.
Daughters came along and with them Dad’s opportunity to be eccentric. When my sister’s goldfish was ailing, he broke half an aspirin into the water, whereupon it swam round like a maniac for a few minutes before passing to the great goldfish bowl in the sky. He sat up all night when my other sister brought day old chicks home from the market, trying to keep them alive in the airing cupboard. Sadly, they didn’t survive either.
As a father, he gave us huge amounts of freedom and we were certain of his unconditional love. But if he asked you to do something he expected that it would be done. If you took your shoes off without undoing the laces he simply cut them off. If you neglected to turn lights out he simply removed the bulbs.
He was known to cut the small lawn in the back garden with a razor blade or nail scissors as the mood took him. As a child,I had pigtails and once when mum was away he couldn’t plait my hair so took me to the hairdressers and paid the girl 6d to do it for him.
It was great fun having him as a dad. He taught us to make owl hoots with our hands and say the alphabet backwards – this has actually proved to be quite a useful tool in later life and not a bad party trick.
He set us fun challenges such as promising to pay us £5 if we could still spread our toes when we were 21. That was a lot of money back then.
Of course, he often drove mum mad. She was a small woman and I remember the sight of her drumming her fists into his chest in frustration for he could be infuriating. He had huge hands with clumsy, sausage fingers – if he tried to mend something he inevitably broke it and was constantly dropping things but would catch them again before they hit the ground and declare cheerfully – ‘It’s alright I’m not hurt.’ One memorable Christmas, he managed to push a tray laden with the best crockery and glasses straight through the hatch. Amidst the shattering sounds from the stone-flagged kitchen floor we could hear ‘It’s alright I’m not hurt.’
Another Christmas, he brought home a huge 18lb turkey which inevitably wouldn’t fit into the oven. Whereupon he attempted to suspend said bird from strings inside the oven. Failure and repercussions were to follow.
Despite the clumsiness and sausage fingers, Dad was a talented pianist with what I think is known as perfect pitch. If you played a record or sang a tune he’d not heard before he could instantly play it on the piano.
When I came along, in the later 1940s, things were difficult financially so dad, along with two other masters, took on managing the school’s boarding house. In an old crumbling villa on Southsea seafront, where Fastnet House now stands, Dad was in charge of fifty boarders and later in a smaller establishment with twenty boys. One of these masters had a tragic cricketing accident and went totally blind. Dad helped Ted to manage his teaching job by reading to him every week, whether it be the newspapers or the boys history essays, and patiently helped him to master Braille.
Dad was a deeply kind and self-effacing man. Yet, he was also incredibly self-conscious and exasperated mum when he found it necessary to talk in a loud voice in public, addressing remarks to nearby strangers.
He sometimes made deliberately provocative decisions. When, at the age of fifty, mum decided to learn to drive and bought a car, Dad’s answer was to buy a scooter. It was lilac in colour and called a ‘Triumph Tina’. I’ll leave it to your imagination mum’s reaction to this development. There were no crash helmets in those days so dad bought a trilby hat which he wore when riding it. He was a well-built man with a large head and he looked nothing short of ridiculous on his new machine – a bit like Biffo the bear riding around a circus ring.
He did eventually learn to drive himself and passed his test after three attempts. But it wasn’t a happy experience to be in the car with him. Although he had a good understanding of road sense from all his cycling, he struggled with the mechanics of driving and if something went wrong his response would be to simply turn off the engine whilst underway.
He was also a man of ritual. He smoked a pipe all his adult life favouring Three Nuns Empire – what’s that name all about I wonder? I swear there’s more ritual in pipe-smoking than having a fix – all that tamping down of the pungent smelling tobacco, placing the box of Swan Vestas across the bowl and sucking deeply. His tweed jackets always smelt of tobacco and extra strong mints and the pockets were never without a clean handkerchief.
When his beloved Kay died, dad coped by immersing himself in his favourite dusty, Greek tomes. In her honour, he kept the house going just as she had – always a tin of rock cakes ready for visitors and he could produce a mean Sunday roast.
He still cycled, of course, and would appear at my house, red faced and eyes watering but always with a lovely bunch of flowers or some fruit in his saddlebag.
He never judged when we made mistakes and taught me ‘don’t let the bigots get to you’ – which has been a valuable lifelong lesson.
I’m well-proud to say that he was my dad.