Organising a funeral puts the whole brouhaha that [some] people make of organising a wedding into cutting perspective. Both rites of passage usually involve an official service of some sort, speeches and some form of refreshment, yet it takes but a week or so to organise a funeral and, well, let’s just say, in general, longer to organise a wedding…
I guess it must be some sort of inverse law as people tend to be deceased for a lot longer than they are married.
In the short, but intense, period spent organising my father’s funeral, there were [too] many jaw-dropping moments; dealing with doctors, hospital bereavement officers, registrars and funeral directors proved to be revelatory in unexpected ways. I might post some of the choicer moments up here at some point but, for now, let’s just say I was bloody glad to have a black sense of humour.
Anyway. My father’s funeral was a few months ago now. It had all the required elements and it seemed to go off rather well with my father’s school and university friends, colleagues and relatives all making the journey and having good old chinwags over a drink and a sausage roll. Actually, there weren’t any sausage rolls; the pub down the road from the church seems to have developed slight pretensions, so the buffet was somewhat chi-chi. Mini hoisin duck wraps aside, as my cousin Alison said, ‘He would have loved it!’.
It was at the church were my brother is buried and we kicked off with Cattle Call and the Dambusters March on my portable CD player and then went down a more traditional route, with laughs. There were several hymns and the vicar spoke and my father’s university friend Mike spoke and then I had a go at speaking too. I’m not sure why I want to post this on the internet, but I do, so here’s what I said:
I didn’t really know how to begin this, so for starters, here are some assorted memories. One of the first things I remember Daddy teaching me was the importance of tipping your wellington boots upside down before you put them on, to make sure you’ve emptied the scorpions out. Then when I was about six, one of my favourite books was ‘Adventures of The Wishing Chair’ by Enid Blyton and I really wanted to have a Wishing Chair. And Daddy made me one. He also made up stories about Bouncing Betty Baxter and told me all about one of his favourite childhood comic strips – Jimmy Wilson and his Magic Patch. We wrote coded messages to each other using the pig pen cipher for almost three decades. And then of course there was the famous time we went camping on Hayling Island, and Daddy forgot to bring the tent.
We spent a lot of school holidays up at Bush Farm, where he would take us, me and Clive and our cousins, on all sorts of trips – to Anderby Creek on the Lincolnshire coast where we flew kites and got covered in clayey mud, to the Air Museum at Newark and to Hobbins aeromodelling and toy shop in Lincoln where I think he had as nice a time as we did.
Daddy had some tapes that he liked to play in the car. There was a Beach Boys tape, an Abba tape, one called ‘The Entertainers’ featuring Ralph McTell and co and ‘The Entertainer’ on piano which I must have requested hundreds and hundreds of times and he very patiently played. And there was a tape of cowboy songs including ‘Cattle Call’ which we heard earlier which he especially liked because of the poignant yodelling. He also liked the Goons and he had a Goon Show record which featured the classic song ‘Ying-tong-iddle-i-po’ which we thought was quite possibly the funniest thing in the whole world.
When I was 18, we went to Canada to see his Uncle Alan, Cousin Pat and families and we had all manner of adventures including going up the CN tower on a stormy day and seeing lightning and a rainbow at the same time. We also took a canoe out on a lake, paddled over to an island, pulled the canoe up out of the water and went off and explored. I had no idea where we’d left the canoe, but Daddy, in true pioneer fashion, had counted his footsteps, so we did manage to get off the island.
At work, he designed electronic filters for all manner of applications and equipment, and components designed by him are in use all over the world including on the Jubilee Line and in every phone. And when was when he was in hospital recently, he was pleased to note that he’d worked on the development of practically every piece of apparatus in the room. Over the past few weeks, I’ve received many emails from his former colleagues and customers saying how brilliant he was at work and how good he was at explaining ideas in an understandable and humorous fashion. One customer said: ‘John was one of those of those rare “black magic” guys which are few and far between. I’ll always remember our dealings as I’ve never known such a down-to-earth person who could switch from being the straight and professional “engineer” to someone who was so interesting and funny’.
One story I remember him telling about his work is how he’d been once making a component for a company that was Swiss, and so he decided to design the component in the shape of a Toblerone.
His interest in things electrical started early. His sister, my Aunty Joyce, remembers him in his teens buying ex-RAF and army radio gear from the local paper and talking over this radio gear to a friend of his while, unbeknownst to them, their conversations were being broadcast on all the televisions in Horncastle. He was always getting into scrapes and was the buffoon of the class as well as the star of the gym display team. Another story Aunty Joyce told me was they were once having an afterschool dance club in the gym and they’d put a record on rather loudly. The headmaster stormed in saying ‘Whose record is that?’ whereupon my Dad rushed up to the gramophone, took the record off and said, ‘Please Sir, it says it’s Bill Halley’s’. He remembered his school days with great affection, thoroughly enjoying the recent reunions and fondly recalling his time as house captain of Tennyson house which had the motto: ‘Our hoard is little but our hearts are great’.
And then there were the aeroplanes – building and flying model ones and marvelling at full-size ones. He had a particular affection for the Lancaster and the P47 Thunderbolt, a goliath of an aeroplane, which had its maiden flight, allowing for transatlantic time differences, on the day he was born. His retirement plan had been to build a big scale model of the Thunderbolt, but that sadly didn’t happen.
Daddy always tried to see whatever play I happened to be doing, at university and afterwards, whether it was at the Opera House, in a dusty cellar or in the middle of Peckham. He also helped me move house several times, including one agonising time when I was moving from south London to the edge of Epping Forest. We crossed Tower Bridge an inordinate number of times that day and ended up rechristening it ‘Our Bridge’.
He very much enjoyed giving people things. Particularly things he thought were useful or interesting. I vividly remember Granny at Bush Farm exclaiming ‘Ooh Child’ as Daddy presented her with a large microwave oven or an enormous spoon or some other, often large, special object. Over the years, he gave me many useful and interesting presents –an electric screwdriver, a Ronson desk lighter, an Aladdin paraffin lantern, a microwave bacon crisper, three ornamental telescopes, two working pairs of binoculars and five fullsize shop dummies. Recently he sent me some small but very strong rare earth magnets. He was quite concerned they might not arrive, because when he’d posted them in the letter box, the envelope had gone clang against the side. And earlier this year, after I’d remarked in an email that I had my nose to the grindstone, a few days later the postman delivered an envelope containing a sticking plaster inscribed in French: ‘Pour le nez’.
Alongside this, there were difficult and sad aspects to his personality. For example, he was very bad at throwing things away. He once said to me that there was too much of the magpie and the squirrel in his genes. And this did become very problematic. He also was very reluctant to let anyone help him. But on the odd occasion he did, it could be fun – a few years ago, he and I cut down all the brambles and ivy in his back garden and were astounded when we uncovered a shed we’d both forgotten was there. And then we made a giant bonfire of all the vegetation, accidentally set fire to an overhanging tree and cooked baked potatoes in the ashes of the fire.
Daddy was fascinated by words and loved playing with language. He really delighted in talking and emailing. He liked to share what he was interested in – local radio was an outlet for this for a while, and he ended up being a frequent contributor to a Sunday afternoon super-tough general knowledge quiz on which he won a number of prizes. He took to email like a duck to water and he would compose great long poetical tracts. But he also liked the concise form of the text message and sent out the message ‘White rabbits’ on the first of every month, sometimes extremely early in the morning. He had a magical turn of phrase and gave me some pithy pieces of advice, for example:
On giving up smoking: ‘Wait until the desire to not smoke comes over you, and then don’t fight it too hard’.
And when I went to off to study for a degree he said: ‘Don’t let lectures get in the way of a university education.’
He also had a selection of favourite well-known poems and sayings and that he liked to quote, including this:
‘I burn my candle at both ends, it will not last the night, but, ah, my foes and, oh, my friends, it’s such a lovely light’