Dad. They say it with loving frustration. My children, individually and collectively, shake their head. Dad, you say that every time. Perhaps I say it for the response. Anyway, they have all left home and gone to roam, so when will we have the chance to frustrate each other again? Dad, you’re always saying that. Nostalgia grows thicker in old age. Now it is nice to hear grandchildren call me G’andpa, nice to hear them drop the ‘r’, nice to hear them individualise the salutation so I feel I am the only G’andpa in the world. It is like that when they shake their head around the word Dad. I feel it is about me, not just any male who has had offspring. Me, frustrating Dad. My father was absent a lot while I was growing up, but when I say my frustrating sayings to my sons and daughter over and over again, it is because it is an echo of him, an echo of my early homelife, seedbed to all I am now.
My favourite old saying has to be, ‘Let the saw do the work.’ I can’t hear his voice in those words, I can’t remember the circumstance in which he said them, but the wisdom is there. The shining, hungry teeth of a saw are specially placed and angled to bite their way through wood; forcing it to do the job quickly or at some torturous angle will only impede the efficiency of their work. This is as I see it now and how it was told to me sometime in the Fifties, not in so many words, but by the axiom, ‘Let the saw do the work.’ It isn’t a cop out for procrastinating carpenters, or an excuse proffered by powerless workers. It is pre-computer wisdom from the back shed where all the best thinking was once born in Australia.
Yet I wonder where my father heard it. He was a man of the Club and the office, hardly a man of the back shed. I wonder if he ever went into our wonderful, musty, archaic, stonewalled and shingle-roofed shed. Father stood tall (well, every adult was tall to me then) and always, without fail, wore a bow tie. This was his idea of being a gentleman: a bow tie, personally tied and impeccably balanced. To test if a stranger was a gentleman or not, Father would lean forward and pull at the outer edge of the stranger’s bowtie. If the tie came away into a limp piece of fabric, the man was declared a gentleman. If it snapped back, complete and unruffled by my father’s tug, the man was an imposter, an ungentleman, and so was ignored or worse. A gentleman always ties his own tie, was the full verse and chapter of it. Perhaps, at the base of this shibboleth act, lay another axiom: Let the hand do the work.
I can’t tie a bow tie. I have never learnt how and it would be perverse in this day and age to learn now. Like using ‘whom’ in day-to-day conversation. But inside my throat, when I clear it of its obstructions before speaking to scholars assembled or an audience at a poetry reading, I pull at the fabric of my memory and untie myself to be a gentleman in your presence, and then let the words do their work.