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A man of immaculate art

In the prime of his life, my late father was the most immaculate man I have ever known; immaculate of manner, impeccable in appearance, a masterpiece of charm and elegance.

A man of impressive stature, over six feet tall and athletically proportioned , my father was not strikingly handsome in the movie idol sense; his nose was too Roman, his ears too long, his cheeks somewhat hollower than unquestionable good looks demand; but his sensitivity and sincerity were irresistible to the ladies, and he had a distinct flair for wearing his limited wardrobe to maximum effect.

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We were not a wealthy family. We had a roof over our heads, food on the table, and the necessities of life, but very few of the luxuries. Instead of buying, say, two medium-priced suits every year, my father would buy two expensive but unostentatious Savile Row suits every five or six years; and his attention to and maintenance of those suits was nothing short of reverential. It was the same with everything he wore -- shoes, socks, shirts, ties, hat, and so on. His appearance was one of his arts, and he sought perfection in it.

It was one of his idiosyncrasies that nothing my father wore should look new; it should be made immediately to reflect the shape, characteristics, and temperament of the wearer. For that reason, he would never leave the house wearing a new suit without having worn it in the house for at least one full day -- walking from room to room in it, bending in it, sitting in it, stretching in it. In the same way, he had always to "walk-in" his new shoes in the house; and his neckties were tied, untied, and tied again, over and over, before they were permitted to accompany him out. Whether new trench coat or overcoat, my father would save the heaviest, most physical around-the-house jobs for it, wearing it to rearrange the furniture, clean windows, replace carpeting, or to haul objects to or from the basement or attic; then, its newness dissipated -- its surface brushed and examined for spots -- only then was it fit to be seen in public.

But it was my father's treatment of a new hat that used to fascinate me most; it occupied him (and me as an observer) for hours. He would stand in front of a mirror, place the hat on his head, peer at his reflection, mould the hat with both hands, striving for a certain look known only to him, take the hat off, shape it some more, put it back on, take it off, sprinkle it with tap water or steam it with the kettle, bend it, twist it, pull and tug at it -- until it seemed his head had been born to it. Then he would go off for a walk carrying it in his hand. I cannot remember ever seeing my father wearing a hat, but he nearly always carried one.

Just as his clothes had to look natural to him before they were found acceptable, so my father's good graces and manners had to be natural and second-nature to him. He deplored ostentation in personal appearances; he would not abide insincerity and insensitivity in personal encounters. Yet I know he had a well-hidden, heavy temper, capable of blasting through his self-cultivated refinement; so most probably he had to work on his temperament with an intensity at least equal to that which he dedicated to his wardrobe.

For all his elegance and charm, the most vivid memory I have of my father would surprise him beyond belief. The most persistent, recurring vision I have is of him standing in the middle of our small street, in broad daylight, dressed only in striped pyjama-trousers and a singlet undervest, shaving lather thick on his face, shaving brush in hand -- gazing up at a dogfight between three RAF Spitfires and two Messerschmitts, and beside me at the window my mother calling above the shriek of the air-raid siren: "Come in, Jack, you'll get cold!"

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