Dad’s legacy

Mu­si­cian Guy Gar­vey recorded his fa­ther telling sto­ries – now it’s a trea­sured fam­ily archive

The Guardian - Weekend - - News - By Donna Fer­gu­son. Por­trait: Jay Brooks

Guy Gar­vey is cry­ing. He has been re­count­ing one of his fa­ther Don’s sto­ries, recorded be­fore his death in March. “My dad loved his sto­ries,” he says. “He would tell them at gath­er­ings, when he was out for a pint – he had sto­ries for ev­ery sit­u­a­tion or oc­ca­sion.”

Cap­tur­ing his fa­ther’s tales cap­tured the essence of his fa­ther. “The record­ings I made are not just a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of him. They are an es­sen­tial part of him – and they are trea­sured.”

As the lead singer of El­bow and a host on BBC Ra­dio 6 Mu­sic, Gar­vey, 44, has made a fair few record­ings in his time, but says, “The record­ings I have made of my dad talk­ing are now the most valu­able record­ings I own and have ever been in­volved in mak­ing.”

The story that made him weep is one that recorded his fa­ther’s joy: an anec­dote about how Don, as a boy, man­aged to bunk off school and spend a wartime birth­day at a foot­ball match with his own fa­ther and el­der brother, who both hap­pened to be home on leave. He plays me an­other one – in this one, Don ex­plains how he once saw a pekingese dog get run over by a bus in Manch­ester. Its posh lady owner chat­ted to a friend, obliv­i­ous to her pet’s mis­for­tune un­til she called, “Come along”, and re­alised there was now a squashed pan­cake at the end of the lead. On the tape, recorded in Gar­vey’s kitchen, you can hear the singer’s six sib­lings laugh­ing and protest­ing: “No, Dad, not the dead dog story!” while Gar­vey in­sists that his fa­ther keeps go­ing.

He be­gan mak­ing the record­ings 10 years ago, long be­fore Don was di­ag­nosed with the can­cer that killed him, aged 83. “I wanted to cap­ture his sto­ries – specif­i­cally, the ones from his child­hood. Those sto­ries were a part of my child­hood, and there was a thought at the back of my head that they would be gone un­less I recorded them.”

But Gar­vey felt ner­vous at the start of the first ses­sion. “I said, ‘Dad, do you mind if I record your sto­ries and record you talk­ing?’ And he said: ‘Why? Be­cause you think I’m go­ing to die?’ This was what I was afraid of. I said, ‘No, be­cause I know you’re go­ing to die – but I want to get your sto­ries when you’ve got all your mar­bles.’ Then I pressed record.”

In to­tal, he man­aged to cap­ture nearly three hours. “Not only did I get the sto­ries I was af­ter – the ones I’d heard many times be­fore – I got sto­ries you only get if you hit record.”

He re­alised all the anec­dotes he knew al­ready ei­ther had punch­lines or rev­e­la­tions at the end – oth­er­wise, his fa­ther wouldn’t have re­counted them in com­pany. “But if you ask some­body for their ear­li­est mem­ory, you don’t get a fully rounded an­swer or a well-re­hearsed anec­dote.” With the mi­cro­phone on, his fa­ther was more open to talk­ing about love than usual, and shar­ing his big­gest re­grets. He was also keen to re­flect on the so­cial at­ti­tudes of his gen­er­a­tion, shock­ing Gar­vey with a story about how scared his grand­mother was when she first met a black man.

“The sto­ries that came out in the record­ings… he was aware this was for pos­ter­ity, and I’m sure that sort of charged him in a dif­fer­ent way from telling an anec­dote in the room full of peo­ple would have done.”

Gar­vey be­lieves ev­ery­one should record their par­ents’ sto­ries, and is shar­ing his own fa­ther’s in a new Ra­dio 4 doc­u­men­tary in the hope it will en­cour­age oth­ers. “I un­der­stand why peo­ple don’t do it, be­cause you’re say­ing: one day, you’re not go­ing to be here. Who wants to think about that with your par­ents? There’s a sense it will be a macabre duty.”

But, for Gar­vey, it wasn’t. In fact, it cre­ated new bonds be­tween them. “I’m sure do­ing the record­ings helped to bring us closer. I heard my dad as a lit­tle boy. I heard him as a teenager. I heard about his brav­ery in the face of fear­some teach­ers. I heard about his os­ten­ta­tious so­cial life as a 17-year-old. I heard him as a young fa­ther, which is where I am now.”

He hopes the record­ings will one day al­low his one-year-old son, Jack, to get to know his dead grand­fa­ther. “This is about get­ting a sense of some­body through their speak­ing voice, get­ting a sense of their place in his­tory, their con­cerns, what they were like to meet and to be­hold. Just the fact that these record­ings have been made means they’re there to come across in the fu­ture.”

The process has made him think more deeply about the bonds that con­nect the dif­fer­ent gen­er­a­tions of his fam­ily. “Record­ing my dad showed me who he was be­fore he was my dad and what made up the per­son he was – and there­fore what makes up the per­son I am, and there­fore what makes up the per­son my son is.”

He con­fesses that his re­la­tion­ship with his fa­ther wasn’t al­ways as good as it was at the end. “We got on great when I was a kid; as a teenager, not so much.” At one point, they fell out com­pletely. “We still spoke, but we found each other very test­ing and ev­ery con­ver­sa­tion would be­come some kind of brinkman­ship.”

Don had got his first job at the age of 15 and worked un­til he was 70 in a wide va­ri­ety of roles: chemist, sales­man, taxi driver, de­liv­ery man, news­pa­per proof­reader and print­ing tech­ni­cian. He didn’t ap­prove of his son be­ing in a band at first. “When he saw that it didn’t make me any money for the first 15 years or so, he found it hard to sup­port that – money was very im­por­tant to any­one of the war gen­er­a­tion, par­tic­u­larly.”

Their re­la­tion­ship im­proved af­ter Don heard El­bow play at the MEN arena in Manch­ester in 2003. “Not only had he not seen the band be­fore, he had never been to an arena. My sister said he watched the whole thing with his mouth open. Af­ter­wards, he was ab­so­lutely gush­ing. It was a com­plete turn­around.”

Gar­vey didn’t judge his work­ing-class fa­ther for ex­pect­ing his son to graft for a liv­ing as he had. “My dad was proud of me: that’s all I needed to know.”

He thinks his fa­ther found mak­ing the record­ings ther­a­peu­tic and flat­ter­ing. “Be­ing in­ter­viewed about your­self, gen­er­ally, and hav­ing your son or daugh­ter take an in­ter­est in your life – it’s go­ing to make you hold your head high. Who wouldn’t be flat­tered? Dad, please can I have your sto­ries to keep for ever? Please can I have your thoughts, your feel­ings, your voice, to keep for ever?” Even­tu­ally, his fa­ther loved the project so much that, when­ever they were to­gether, he would tell Gar­vey, “Get your recorder out, I’ve got an­other one.”

Does he find the record­ings painful to lis­ten to? “No. It re­minds me who Dad was, but doesn’t make me miss him more. It makes me proud of him all over again. It makes me feel closer to him.”

A per­son’s voice, he says, trig­gers a much more com­plex, in­ti­mate and ex­pres­sive connection than a pho­to­graph. “I some­how feel like it’s closer to the soul, the sound of some­one’s voice. You can hear their age and ex­pe­ri­ence. You in­vest more in the sound when it’s all you’ve got to go on. You put it to­gether in your head.”

Gar­vey is still learn­ing to be a fa­ther him­self, and hopes the sto­ries he’s pre­served will help him to do that with­out his own fa­ther at his side. “I have noth­ing un­said. I have no re­grets where he is con­cerned. And I hear him in me all the time, par­tic­u­larly since be­com­ing a dad. I find my­self do­ing the same things he did. In so many ways, he was the kind of dad I want to be.”

Lis­ten to BBC Ra­dio 4’s Guy Gar­vey: Record­ing Dad on BBC Sounds, 1.30-2pm, from to­day

‘It re­minds me who Dad was, but doesn’t make me miss him more. It makes me proud of him all over again and feel much closer to him’

Guy Gar­vey with his fa­ther Don in An­gle­sea, 1976

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