My dad and the meaning of life

A couple of weeks ago I wrote my dad’s eulogy. Last week I delivered it at his funeral.

It wasn’t a terribly hard piece to write, I knocked it out in about half an hour. But that’s largely because in his last days and weeks when I turned out the light and my brain decided to really go to work I’d manipulated and mulled over ideas. So when I came to write it down I knew what I wanted to say. It was, if I say so myself, a decent bit of writing.

Delivering it was less straightforward. But I had a job to do on a difficult day and I did it. (And, as is often the way in such tricky situations, an unexpected and not really appropriate to the occasion tune got stuck in my head with it’s refrain of “I’ve got work to do“. However, at least the Isley Brothers can put a tune together, annoyingly Daniel Bedingfield felt he needed to get in on the unwanted-playlist-in-my-head too).

I’m not going to post the entire eulogy here, it’s too personal for that. But there’s a couple of broader points it contains I think are worth sharing.

My dad worked for the Clydesdale Bank for 35 years including stints in the Victoria branch and the St James branch in London. Last week I found myself in the B Lounge, all that is left of the Clydesdale Bank in London. It looks like a branch of Top Shop from the outside (which is an OK look, if it actually was a Top Shop). Inside there are iPads and phones stuck to desks and a coffee counter in the corner. Maybe that’s what people want from a bank these days. I’ve yet to meet anyone who advocates banks need coffee bars rather than say, more staff in the branch over lunch hour. But this bit of the eulogy speaks to the issue at hand:

For Dad the numbers he conjured with in the bank were not the most important thing. He was an old school banker, and recent history has showed us that is the best sort of banker.

He knew that those pounds and pence represented people – who wanted to buy their first home, save to start a family, or begin a business. In a place like Dollar he knew almost everyone and he didn’t just take that responsibility seriously because of that, he enjoyed helping people. He wasn’t in it to boost the bank’s profits, he was in it to be useful to his fellow humans. 

And because he was interested in people it is not really as surprising as it may at first appear that he found a second career later in life as a writer, columnist, journalist of sorts. 

I leave that last point there because too often journalists like myself regard ourselves as ‘wordsmiths’ in direct opposition to ‘number crunchers’. In fact we’re all people and the best of both do it to improve other people’s lives.

I haven’t been to enough funerals to know what makes a good eulogy. That’s down to age or luck or most likely a combination of the two. But as well as a sort of potted biography and covering what he meant to us as a family I feel it ought to speak to some bigger lesson about what it means to be human. That’s a big and pretentious goal. I didn’t set out to solve the human condition. But I ended with what I feel is a valuable lesson.

It’s an episode from his time in hospital that I want to end with. That I think sums him up.

A couple of weeks ago I went to visit him in hospital. I had to return home to London later that day so I knew that when I said goodbye, most likely it really would be goodbye

I told him that if he had anything to tell me then that was the time to do it.

He looked at me with rheumy eyes and cracked lips and said…

“I fell in the River Thames once!

It was 1968. I was drunk.

I got back out again”

And I left the room sad and upset but with a smile on my face.

And that goes to the core of a man. What better lesson in life to pass on than to find the funny in even the darkest moments. It’s a tactic we’ve all had recourse to in recent days. As a family we are sad. But because of dad we are still laughing.

A bit more levity would not go amiss in our troubled times. A bit more perspective.

My brothers would no doubt have written something completely different. Focusing on other aspects of dads life and personality. But the task fell to me. I think putting people first, keeping perspective and maintaining a sense of humour are key to what makes a good life.

After the service lots of people congratulated me and commended the eulogy. But the one that’s stuck with me is the woman who told me she couldn’t hear it and didn’t understand why people were laughing. She was only one among literally dozens of positive comments and the failure was undoubtedly with her hearing rather than my delivery. And yet hers is the feedback I remember. It’s annoying but somehow it spoke to my themes: you only achieve perspective and humour by being confronted with failure, setbacks, negativity as well as praise and success. And being niggled by the negative is surely a very human reaction.

I’ll aim to post more regularly here in future and the content may be more personal. I suspect I may return to the themes I’ve ruminated on here today – humour, perspective, finding what we have in common, and shit banks.



One thought on “My dad and the meaning of life

  1. I was curious after watching you on the BBC this morning and as you do turned to google to see if you were perhaps Les Millar son. I’m saddened to learn of his recent passing.

    I was a 17 year old junior when he became branch manager at Clydesdale Bank in Dollar. I of course addressed him as Mr Millar in those days and had tentative aspirations to be a bank manager too.

    Your dad recognised I had ability and unusual amongst his peers in these days encouraged me to study for the Institute of Bankers exams.

    Having graduated MCIBS I moved on from the comfort of working in Dollar to progress my career. I recently retired from a senior position at Bank of Scotland Commercial Banking, exceeding any expectations I had for myself back in 1979.

    There have been a lot of ups and downs along the way, but I’ve always held onto foundations laid down during my time working with your dad.

    I remain truly grateful to Les for his guidance and encouragement all those years ago, without which my journey to such a rewarding career would not have been possible.

    Please pass on my condolences to Sue.

    Shona Austin (nee Harrower)


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