My father was a clever man and never stopped learning throughout his eighty odd years of life. He was born before the time when it was possible to pull oneself up by the bootlaces, so after an elementary education he left school and learned from books. His first job was as an errand-boy to a Chemist in the city where we lived, but he got the sack after a few months because he tried to deliver a bottle of medicine to a house and when there was no-one in he put the bottle through the letter-box with disastrous consequences. (not so clever in that area then!)
For the rest of his working life he served an apprenticeship and later became the Foreman in a Lathe Department of an Engineering Works. But his lifetime's passion was always poetry and he could recite reams of it by heart.
I now have most of his Poetry books, all neatly inscribed with his name 'John Smithson' and among these my favourite is Palgrave's Golden Treasury of Songs and lyrics.
It is our Poetry afternoon on Wednesday and I thought I would choose just poetry my father liked for this month. One piece I have chosen is by Thomas Gray - the same man who wrote Gray's Elegy. But the poem I have chosen is rather more light-hearted in spite of its macabre ending. It is 'Ode on a Favourite Cat Drowned in a tub of Goldfishes.' I have chosen it a)because I love it and b) because it contains one of my Dad's 'quote lines' - he had one for every occasion. In this case 'a favourite has no friend.'
Another of his beloved poems was the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Sunday mornings meant an extra lie in bed, but we had to be up in time for Sunday School. Dad would wake us up by drawing back the curtains and calling Awake! For Morning in the Bowl of Night has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight! So you see, I was brought up on poetry, which is probably why I love it so much.
This year we are going to Suffolk for our holiday and I have turned to my old faithful Ronald Blythe to read up various interesting bits of information to put in my notebook on 'Things to do in Suffolk',
one of which is to locate the grave of Edward Fitzgerald, the poet who translated The Rubaiyat in 1859.
Fitzgeral, a very rich man who never had need to work, lived his whole life in Suffolk and is buried there.
Omar Khayyam lived from the eleventh to the twelfth century and is buried in what was then Persia. By the time Fitzgerald came along Khayyam's grave had fallen into complete ruins. Our man in Tehran tackled the Shah of Persia about the state of the grave and the Shah was mystified - after all the poet had been dead for a thousand years. A journalist from the Illustrated London News went to see it and brought back some rose hips which were propagated at Kew and a rose bush was planted on Fitzgerald's grave, but so many people came and took cuttings that it never flourished.
In the nineteen seventies the then Shah sent six new rose bushes to be planted round Fitsgerald's grave and the Persian ambassador was told to come and plant them. All the local dignitaries arrived to welcome him at a set time but he was very late, having stopped en route for a good lunch. His only comment was 'Oh you English, you are so punctual'.
To end the story here is a lovely joke about the Shah, when he was in Edinburgh on a formal occasion and found himself sitting next to an Edinburgh lady. She asked,
"They tell me Sire that in your country you worship the sun?"
The Shah replied,
"So would you madam if you had ever seen it!"