Written by Toby Young.
Christmas day in the Young household was always an unpredictable affair, thanks to the unusual character of my father Michael. In spite of not being a Christian, he took the charitable aspect of Christmas very seriously and insisted on inviting as many waifs and strays as he could to lunch. There were certain staples such as Vincent Brome, a twinkly-eyed nonagenarian who insisted on telling every woman present about his sex life. But there were also new faces we’d never seen before. On one occasion, the tramp who lived in the park across the street rang the bell as we were about to tuck in to the turkey. As I was fishing in my pocket for 50p, Michael appeared behind me and said, “Ah, Mr Murphy, come in, come in. You’re just in time.”
This generosity didn’t go down well with my mother, who had to feed all these people, but she did her best to cope. She only lost her temper with Michael once and that was the time he disappeared in the morning to visit a cemetery in Bethnal Green. We usually sat down to lunch at 2pm, but the hour came and went and there was no sign of him. We had a particularly fruity group of waifs and strays that year and their only connection was that they all knew my father. Without him there, conversation didn’t exactly flow. It was like the bar scene in Star Wars, rewritten by Harold Pinter.
Michael eventually appeared at about 3.30pm, by which time we were all fed up. The turkey had dried out and the Brussels sprouts were cold. He explained that the reason he was late was because of the unusual things going on at this cemetery. He was fascinated by the subject of death — a topic guaranteed to come up at every Christmas lunch — and he’d heard that on Christmas day this particular cemetery was full of elderly, working-class women sharing “a cuppa” with their late husbands. The “sharing” consisted of pouring tea into their graves.
He’d struck up conversations with several of these women and, because they were all alone at Christmas, they’d been eager to talk. That’s why he couldn’t get away. He told us their stories, bringing to life these wonderful, stoic characters, full of British pluck and able to laugh at their misfortune. Within 15 minutes he’d reduced the entire table to tears. We went from being angry that he was late, to feeling ashamed that we’d put our own comfort and convenience above the needs of these heroic women.
My father was absolutely maddening in all sorts of ways, but he felt such pity and compassion for the neglected of this world that it bordered on love. He also had a Dickensian gift for evoking the same feeling in others. On that day, he taught us all the true meaning of Christmas.
NOTE: Published in The Times on 21 Dec 2015 and used here with permission.