John Collins (1932–2024)

My grandfather passed away this week. In accordance with his wishes there won’t be a large gathering, or really any gathering of any sort. Were such an event to take place I would have requested to deliver some of these thoughts; lacking that opportunity, I’m putting them here.

A typical speech or piece of writing like this would usually focus on his achievements, of which there are many. Born into relative poverty and troubled family life, thankfully just too young to have been involved in the Second World War, he quickly learned mechanical skills and escaped to raise his own family and pursue a hugely successful career in aircraft engineering. For a long time he worked as chief engineer at Cranfield Airport, working on Harriers and Spitfires and Hurricanes and Lancasters and various other aircraft that I only know from books.

But more than that he made me feel like I was always on an adventure with him. I never knew what was coming next. Part of this comes from his sense of humour, which I have less inherited and more simply copied wholesale. I rarely saw him laugh, even when he was telling the tallest tales and pulling the leg of anyone unfortunate enough to be listening. I suppose this isn’t uncommon amongst grandfathers but he had it down to an exact science. Dry doesn’t begin to cover it. Worse, I believed everything he said. I was in my teenage years when I was gently told by my mother that, no, in actual fact, he did not have a successful career as a wrestler in the 1960s and 70s. That Big Daddy was not a family nemesis. That he did not represent Britain in the world championships of Morris dancing. That he did not win prizes for shooting game in Scotland, which definitely did not include being a prize haggis marksman. That he did not invent tartan. He was full of straight-faced bullshit and people loved him for it, once they worked it out. God help them if they didn’t.

My grandad, me and my son in 2019

One key way in which he and I differed was in his response to retirement. I look forward to not having to work—it can’t come soon enough. Like many of his generation, he hated the transition and struggled to understand his place. He found ways to be useful and probably just to be busy: a decade volunteering at the A&E department of our local hospital followed (a typically grim anecdote he’d share with me over an otherwise pleasant cup of tea: “you should have seen this poor bugger that came in today. They brought him in in bags“). He needed to keep his hands and mind busy, with anything from word games to woodworking. You needed something making or fixing? He’d do it, or break himself or it trying. Even into his final decade, and boy does it sound extremely weird writing that word ‘final’, I’d visit his house and find him high up on the roof fixing loose tiles or knee deep resolving god knows what issues lie at the bottom of a septic tank.

A figurative giant to me, he battled various health issues from middle age until his tenth decade. Major heart failure and the subsequent multiple bypass operation were defining moments of my adolescence, followed by several more heart attacks and other issues in the next thirty-plus years. He’ll outlive us all, the git, we all thought and said, as he spent time in and out of hospital, barely patched together each time before he sweet-talked a nurse to let him outside for a cigarette. He nearly did outlive us.

I know I’m exceptionally lucky to have had him with me into my forties. For the past couple of decades he was as much dad as grandad to me, always ready to offer thoughts and advice when I needed it. Losing his beloved wife Annie, my grandmother, in 2018 was an ordeal he struggled with and was a pain I wouldn’t wish on anyone. But life continued to push him ever onwards: he was immensely proud of his three children, four grandchildren and—let me count on my fingers for a sec—ten great-grandchildren. But I was even prouder to be his grandson. I’ll miss you forever, grandad.

My grandad and my son in 2017




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