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 4 November.
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