Wednesday, 31 March 2010

My Father - his funeral tribute

He was known to some of you as Steve; to a very few, who knew him from his schooldays, as John; to two of us as Daddy; and to seven of us as Grandpa. Today I shall speak of him as my father – not only mine of course: my sister Jane, who inherited his red hair and who absolutely adored him, was the first of the two children born to him and Mary; but the term ‘Our father in heaven’ is already taken I believe, so I will speak of him as ‘my father’ for now.

From Marcel Proust’s book À La Recherche du Temps Perdu, come the now famous and oft-quoted words, “Mais où sont les neiges d’antan?” (Where are the snows of yesteryear?) He may have been putting his own twist on a line filched from François Villon’s “Òu sont les rouilles d’antan?” and therefore presumably would not have minded that my father filched it again and improved it impressively, taking it to new poetic heights with his “Mais òu sont les cure-dents d’antan?” which he would routinely murmur at the end of a meal in any restaurant – which might loosely be translated as “Why do they never provide toothpicks any more?”

His dotty sense of humour and delight in winding people up are surely two of the things he will be remembered for. I remember a Sunday lunchtime when I was about ten, all of us sitting nicely round our beautifully laid table to a delicious meal – my mother’s contribution to the occasion – listening to her explaining to us exactly what a sphincter is (I can’t remember why). My father listened politely along with me and my sister, and then concluded Mither’s explanation with his own words:

I wish I were a little sphincter
I’d open and I’d shut
I’d tickle the oesophagus
And paralyse the gut

How could we possibly forget him?

Born here in Scarborough; descended, I am entirely certain, from Viking invaders – looking at our picture book of Norway as a child, I saw any number of men who looked just like my father – he was the only son of Clarice and Frank Stephenson, who were always immensely proud of him. My grandfather was organist and choirmaster here for many years, and my father sang in the choir and served as an altar-boy. Though he did not really pursue the gift for music he inherited from his father, it was there in his astonishing linguistic ability and his love of jazz, and he introduced us in childhood to world music, bringing home EPs from all over Europe. He also enjoyed playing the piano, and in recent years my sister acquired a piano so that he could have the pleasure of fooling about with a little jazz on a Sunday afternoon when he went round for tea.

Though he would get into conversation with random strangers all over the place, my father was essentially a private and solitary man. He loved his family, but could not bear extended company. When I was at university he sometimes travelled many miles to visit me, but would never stay longer than ten minutes.

But the friendships he made have lasted a lifetime: until the present time he kept in touch with friends from Scarborough High School where he was educated and from Oxford University where he read modern languages at University College: his death has meant cancelling his booking to attend the reunion dinner which he and Alan Green always looked forward to, and for which Harvey McGregor was flying back from Paris.

My father’s roots and formative years meant a great deal to him. My sister and I grew up in Bishops Stortford, and had tremendous fun on the occasions we were taken to Cambridge where my father would leave his watch in lieu of a deposit for boat hire, and take us and our mother punting on the Cam. Very strong and fit (he swam for the university in his Oxford days) he was excellent at punting – but as we went along the river we would be hailed by any number of well-meaning souls attempting to put him right: because he would insist on punting from the Oxford end of the boat.

He was certainly his own man. He started the export endeavours of EverReady batteries, and was sent to Scandinavia, French West Africa, Greece, Japan, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, France and probably other places I have forgotten. He drove his line managers wild by refusing to report back as he went. All they knew was, he had gone to the Congo; and he thought that was all they needed to know. My sister and I were more fortunate. As children in our home we had a large box full of the treasured postcards he never neglected to send home from his travels. Photographs of wild animals from Africa, enchanting replicas from Paris of street artists’ paintings of little girls – one red-haired, one blonde. His messages were funny and affectionate, decorated with his daft cartoons – I remember one of a giraffe wearing a diminutive scarf to comfort its sore throat. Imagining a giraffe with a sore throat is a very John Michael Stephenson line of thought.

And he brought home for us the wonders of the world – ivory carvings from Africa, an elephant’s molar, and sapphire blue butterflies as big as your hand; exquisitely dressed porcelain dolls from Japan, reindeer-skin slippers from Lapland – he was away from home more than he was there, but his family were never far from his thoughts.

Later, when he started his own business manufacturing carpet, he still divided his time between Hertfordshire and the north country. He never liked to perch on any twig for too long.

At home, though he was not famous for co-operation, his principal joint project with our mother was the garden, in any given one of the seemingly endless succession of homes we lived in.

He laid steps where the ground was steep, dug the pond and the flower beds, made fences to keep the dog in, managed the woodland, mowed the immense lawns with great patience, and put endless effort into all that was required to make our large houses and even larger gardens beautiful.

The wedding photos of his marriage to my mother show a couple that could put film stars in the shade. In those days his eyes were so blue you would notice them across the street and his hair as red as a flame. He always gave her yellow roses for their anniversary, because she loved them.

Essentially a gentle and patient person who loved his family and had a horror of hurting anyone, but who needed simplicity and homeliness and needed to be free, our domestic life was not always easy for him.

On Sundays we went to the village church; where he served on the sidesmen’s rota, and in which context the group of friends with whom he met every Thursday at the pub got to know each other. The Church held for him a real nostalgic value: but I do not know what his beliefs were. He was acutely intelligent, serving as what was described as an ‘interpreter’ in Germany for his national service with the Air Force, and could see through most blags and smoke screens. The power games of religion would not have taken him in; but I think he was not atheist, he loved beauty and, passionately Conservative in his politics, tradition mattered to him.

He had flair, he had persistence, and he loved the countryside. These characteristics came together in his project for re-afforestation of the Nile valley in Africa, which he pursued as far as he could, with the help and advice of his good friend Jack Leaf.

He was very interested in language and the structure of language. He remarked to me one day that once you know enough languages well enough to speak them, you become aware of the patterns of language and it is then easy to learn a new one. The thesis he wrote in his university days, about the sound shifts as language changes and develops, is now standard linguistic text-book stuff – but of course it wasn’t then, or there would have been no reason to make it the subject of a thesis: so his work and thinking has been part of our development of understanding about the structure of language.

He enjoyed his cars immensely, kept them immaculate and pestered the life out of the mechanics at the garage, nursing the old engines along till they were past hope.

He loved red wine, and no Cheddar cheese was safe with him.

He was individual, eccentric and completely unmanageable: the only man in Much Hadham who had to be excused from sorting his rubbish for recycling.

I shall remember him scrutinizing restaurant menus with care and ordering whatever they did not have. I shall remember him dressed in chinos, and open-necked shirts in colours of the sea and the sky. I shall remember him buying seed to feed the birds – and inadvertently, the rats – that came to his garden. I shall remember him talking wistfully of his dreams of living in a little house in Whitby Bay, or maybe a fishing hut in Norway – somewhere simple and honest and away from the crowd. I shall remember him saying dandelion when everyone else says dandelion. I shall remember him feeding Josh, the beloved border terrier, forbidden scraps from the table.

But most of all, I shall remember him for his kindness. I recall a day when his grandsons were very little – Joe a toddler and Luke a baby. Standing near the great beech tree at Grooms Cottage, I watched Jane and Tim roll in to the gravel drive in their Renault 4, and vanish into the house, Jane carrying Luke, Joe toddling along behind. Then from the walled garden my father strolled into view, taking Joseph by the hand, walking along with him, talking to him quietly and kindly. And that was so like him.

His health remained good into old age, and he disliked medical intervention anyway. When one of his teeth fell out he super-glued it to its neighbour, and that did him very well for several years.

He died as he had lived, as many people do. Without announcement, without the fuss and interference he dreaded. The day before he’d had a happy day out with my mother, failed to meet her as agreed because he got delayed buying a scarf from a market stall to give a child he had seen crying with the cold, but rejoined her at home for tea and cake in the usual way. He was looking forward to visiting my sister the next weekend. He had enjoyed a chat with Alan on the phone. He had got ready for bed in the lovely warm pyjamas Jane gave him at Christmas – he always appreciated his gifts. And he died very suddenly, with no fear, illness or drama.

When we found him, lying on his bed with his head resting on his arm, I looked at his face. In many of the dead one sees an expression of great peace. Looking at his face, the abiding impression was one of kindness. It remained in his features, because it had been the habit of his life.

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Kairos and Chronos

Glad to be home at the end of a chaotic and difficult fortnight, in bed in the darkness of pre-dawn listening to the dripping rain and the call of the gulls, enjoying the freshness of cold air through the slightly open window, and the still-warmth of last night’s hot water bottle at my feet.

I’m pleased with the book I am writing, which will come in on target for time. I changed the word-length to 65,000, because the 2,000 words a day through Lent would have taken me over 95,000, which would have been wrong for the book it is and the series it belongs to. It is a fourth novel for the Hawk & the Dove books, because they have stayed steadily in print for twenty years now, and I had the idea to mark the passing of that time with a new book. I have 3,000 words and six days (inc today) to go: next week’s task is to look for a publisher! I hope Crossway, who have done a good job with the original trilogy, will want it. Some of you have been praying for me in the writing: thank you thank you thank you! I rely on you utterly and you did good. The in-house committee of quality control is giving it the thumbs-up so far and I think something real has come through.

But mainly I was meaning to tell you about the last two weeks.

There are two kinds of time (or so the ancient Greeks thought): Chronos and Kairos. Chronos is the ‘life is just one darn thing after another’ (Mark Twain) kind of time: ‘Day-labouring out life’s age’ (T.S.Eliot??). Days wearing out days inevitably. In the Greek pantheon, Chronos was a god and he ate his children. Do I need to unpack that metaphor for you? Nah. Suffice it to say, some people still eat and breathe and make love and work by the clock, and are harassed and driven by the passing hour – they still make it their god and that god still eats his children. Tip: living simply is the way out of that.

Kairos, on the other hand, a word that means both action and timing (like the performer’s cue – Now! ) is about the prophetic reality of God’s now moment: or the present moment that Zen practitioners have taught us to notice and realize as the only doorway of Life. If you don’t live in the present moment, well you’re dead, aren’t you.

And it is possible to choose kairos over chronos: as a matter of decision to choose to order and experience life not by the imperatives of old age, lunch-time, the factory day and the television schedule, but by ‘moving when the Spirit says move’. The Kairos does not eat its children. It energises and delights them, and gives them hope.

Lao Tsu (wrote the Tao Te Ching) evidently understood about Kairos. Apart from saying that the sages of old were watchful, like men crossing a winter stream (they were taking cognizance of the living moment), he introduced us to the concept of wu-wei – the art of non-doing. If you want a good litmus test to distinguish Chronos people from Kairos people, wu-wei is your bunny. The Chronos people never get it. The Kairos people live it every day. Lao-Tsu described wu-wei as ‘I do nothing and it all happens’. What he meant was, if you are living in the ‘I’m gonna move when the Spirit says move’ Kairos kind of way (not the ‘I hope he doesn’t die this afternoon because it’s Wednesday so I have to return my library books’ / ‘I know you want to show me the first poem you wrote but I can’t read it now or I will be late for the office’ Chronos kind of way) you will become the right person in the right place at the right time doing the right thing just naturally: with no extra effort and no cunning plan, it will happen round you. This is not the same as being passive. You don’t cease to act. But you become watchful like men crossing a winter stream – you watch for the kairos and act when the Spirit says ‘Act!’. So you don’t fritter your life energy on treadwheels and other people’s agendas. Therefore you don’t burn out and you don’t become an indispensable hero/super-star. You remain humble and insignificant, the people and events around you organize themselves and do what needs to be done themselves – but they are able to do so because you are there. Jesus had this off to a fine art – he even got diseases and storms into the loop of the harmony he was generating by fixing his eyes and his personal identity squarely upon the template of God’s pattern.

Because I talk SO MUCH, you must need a tea break by now. Tell you what: you go and have a nice cup of tea, then come back. Then you can read about that happenings of the fortnight just gone and you will see why I have been going on about this. It has been like machine-gun fire of kairos moments.

LP (That’s my kanji of your mug of tea) Uo There’s another. One has a hole in the bottom, the other has a detached handle. Take your pick. Tip: you can drink a mug of tea with no handle, but with no tea is a challenge.

* * * * *


My mother is in her 80s. I won’t write about the relationships and dynamics of my family of origin here or any public place, but to understand this you need to know that my mother lives alone. I visit her, but she lives several hours from me; so, much of our contact is by phone. The last ten years of her marriage she has lived separated from my father, but they spoke on the phone many times a day, spent most of most weekends together, took holidays (US – vacations) together and were good friends.

Because she is so much alone her next-door neighbour Pamela, who has become a good friend, is very important to her. My mother still drives, and she and Pamela have taken each other to places the other has never seen, and enjoyed all kinds of jaunts out and cosy fireside evenings in and tasty suppers cooked at home or enjoyed in restaurants and hotels in each other’s company.

At the beginning of March, Pamela’s sister died. Pamela was raised in northern Scotland and currently lives in Essex (near Cambridge) but her sister happened to live in Driffield. The funeral was to take place at Octon crematorium out in the open farmland near Driffield. Pamela knew neither the location nor the route, but as it happened my mother’s brother, my Uncle Jeff, lived in a village on the edge of Driffield. So when she called him on the phone, he was able to give my mother precise, accurate, careful and helpful directions to get to Octon crematorium; which she passed on to Pamela who came back from the funeral saying those directions were spot-on.

My Uncle Jeff has been in failing health for years. Last year (having myself not seen him for a very long time) I went with my mother to see him, and we had a lovely visit; since then his health which was poor then continued to decline. Just after he had given my mother the directions to Octon crematorium, my Uncle Jeff was taken into hospital. After a few days, he just longed to come home. The staff thought him too ill to discharge, but he insisted. He lives with my Auntie Dinah who is equally old and frail, but has a loving family and a kind carer who comes by each day. When he came home his carer and daughter were there to help, and he asked to have a bath, having only been washed in bed in the hospital. He wanted a bubble bath (whether that’s a foam bath or jacuzzi function in his case I don’t know). So they ran the bath, and he had his bubbles. He said it was really lovely. He appreciated it so much. And while he was luxuriating in his hot bath with both his carer and his daughter on hand to look after Auntie Dinah, he suddenly died.

In the days that followed, my mother became quite exasperated with my father who kept telling her about a really good funeral director in Scarborough, the people who had looked after both his mother’s and father’s funeral. And he kept telling her the readings and psalms suitable for a funeral. She found this frustrating as she had no part in arranging her brother’s funeral and anyway he didn’t live in Scarborough: but she heard it enough times to have indelibly imprinted on her mind the address (1 Prospect Road) of B.Bernard & Sons, Funeral Director.

Because my uncle had just given my mother the directions to Octon crematorium the previous week, when Tony & I took her up to Yorkshire for the funeral she was able to take us straight there with no difficulty. There is a duty rota at the crem there: it so happened that Uncle Jeff’s ceremony officiant was a retired bishop – wise, gentle, dignified. In that safe pair of hands, we had the best funeral imaginable. The funeral was on Monday 15th March at 1.15, so we went up on the Sunday and stayed at the beautiful Monk Fryston Hall (I recommend) overnight, returning to my mother’s place after a bite to eat following the funeral.

Tony had to get back for work in Oxford the following day, so he left me at my mother’s place near Cambridge, and after a bite of supper with us he headed back west. I stayed over with my mother, planning to take a train back down to Hastings in the morning. It’s a four-hour drive from Yorkshire to my mother’s place, and two hours on from there to Tony’s Aylesbury work-roost, so our minds were occupied with supper and general tiredness that night. My father didn’t phone as he often would, but then as he sometimes didn’t phone, that was not something we noticed. He had been given the option to come with us to the funeral, but finding long journeys and big gatherings too exhausting at the age of 82, he had been grateful to sit out that number.

As we chatted over a cup of tea in the morning, my mother asked if I would like to call in and see my father before she dropped me off at the station. I had not thought of this myself, but saw at once it would be an excellent idea. A solitary soul, he did not enjoy long or busy visits, but loved to see me – so we agreed upon that. Over breakfast, my mother called his home several times but got no reply. This wasn’t odd. He usually started calling her any time from 7am, but if he got on the trail of some project of his own he was often out of touch. What to do? I suggested we go over anyway, reasoning that if he was out we could put a note through the (mail-slot in the) door for him to find, and he would be happy that we had made the effort.

So we went over to his cottage. His car was still parked out back, and as his walking was no longer good enough to take a walk for fun, that meant he was home – so we knew we’d find him in. Walking down the garden path to the back of the house, we saw his blinds were drawn; but my mother said that wasn’t odd, he sometimes drew them if the sun was bright, which it was.

However the back door was locked, and my mother began to wonder if something was wrong. We went round to the front of the cottage, where we saw the curtains were also closed. This began to look a bit ‘uh-oh’! He could not be away if his car was there (are you seeing this gentle preparation we had?). What to do? If the front door was locked, neither of us had a key.

To our surprise, the front door actually stood open – not wide open, just a little ajar. The front door opens directly off the front garden into the living room, so he had a door curtain against drafts, which pulled back not to the hinge side but the opening side, so obstructed the opening & closing of the door, and he had an insubstantial doormat which had ridden a little over the threshold. I had to reach in and poke the curtain aside to be able to get in, and the curtain would have stopped any draft and hidden that the door was open – so I guess maybe that’s why it had got left that way.

But we felt relieved, and went in, thinking he must be busy with something. The ‘uh-oh’ feeling persisted however, especially as the reading lamp beside his chair was on. My father was a very tidy man, and the scatter cushions on his sofa were in disarray, which was not like him. The cottage was in silence, no-one answered when we called. We began to feel very apprehensive. We looked in the kitchen and the bathroom (adjoins the kitchen). No-one.

Now we began to feel scared. Realising it was unreasonable for my mother to go up first, I went up the stairs, calling for him. There are two rooms upstairs. The door to the first – his study – stood open, and I could see there was no-one inside. Even so, I gave myself a moment to look in and check all was well, because I was afraid to proceed to the bedroom at the end of the corridor, where the door was only ajar but I could see the light was on. And there was that smell.

It’s a few years now since I was as scared as I was approaching the bedroom. I glimpsed his chair overturned and rug disheveled. His front door had been open. Had he been attacked? Would he be alive? Would he be alone?

I went into the bedroom. He was lying face-down and mostly on the bed, his head resting on his arm as you do when you don’t feel well and you just make it there, and crash out before you raise the energy to crawl right into bed. He was dressed neatly in pyjamas, and his support stockings were round his ankles. The drawers to his clothes chest stood open (I realize now on piecing together what I saw that he was in process of going to bed, had been sitting in the chair taking off his support stockings which he would put in the drawer, had felt odd suddenly, stood up and staggered forward kicking the chair over, got to the bed – and got no further).

I saw that (in his body tissues) the blood had settled gravitationally, which meant he had been some while dead.

I called to my mother as soon as I found him – then realizing he was dead, I called that to her as well. So she came hurrying to the room, then, not wanting to see, wisely withdrew. She wanted her last memory to be a living man, not a corpse.

So we went downstairs and began the phone calls. Later, between answering questions of paramedics and police, I bethought me to go back to his bedroom, and stroke his head, commend his soul to the great journey home, place him in Christ’s safe keeping, tell him I loved him, and say the Lord’s Prayer.

It all had to go to the coroner and be investigated by the police of course, but all was well. His aorta split, and his death (he’d been in very good health for his age) was sudden, instant and unpredictable – no warning and nothing that could or should have been done.

His funeral was yesterday, in St Martins-on-the-Hill church, in Scarborough, Yorkshire. B.Bernard and Sons took care of the funeral.

Are you seeing the hand of God’s love in all this? If I had gone straight home (as I’d planned to) my mother would have found him alone. Pamela’s sister… Octon… Uncle Jeff… B.Bernard & Sons… the open door… so many odd coincidences (coincidences are all kairos-nodes) that handed my mother gently from one moment to the next, knowing that we are frail in old age and need to be carried with care, taking her through these inevitable deep and terrible losses with the greatest of kindness. Do not ever doubt there is someone watching over us.

Isaiah 46:3-4: you whom I have upheld since you were conceived, and have carried since your birth. Even to your old age and grey hairs; I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you says the Lord.

The dawn has come. The sun has risen. My bedside light is not needed. I can hear power machines from the road works. The school bus has called for the little girl next door. It took a long time to tell you that story!

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Hi ho my friends

In case you are wondering where on earth I have got to, here I am on my own small planet still, but writing a book.

I have set myself the task of writing 2,000 words a day throughout Lent - actually as Lent has 46 days, that might get more massive than I want it - but anyway I will write every day, probable target of about 80,000 words. Made it to just under 28,000 so far.

More on what the book actually is once it's complete - but it's another novel.

Actually it's been a strange time - old friends have suddenly materialised out of the woodwork all over the place - on Facebook, by email, on the bus, walking along the street: all wanting to come over and catch up on news and drink tea. In addition to which the church where I mostly go has equally suddenly stopped steadfastly ignoring me and asked me to teach Sunday School.

That last was seriously odd. Bringing forward our move from Aylesbury to Hastings came in part from asking God what ministry I was supposed to be doing now, having stopped being a Methodist minister/preacher/member. The 'still small voice' came inside my heart that the way to go would be moving back to Hastings, and ministry would be not an individual thing but a family thing, and the time was now. So we did that. I have had difficulty establishing roots in a church here again though, for one reason or another. I almost gave up on chapel attendance, except that the Bible says don't do that (give up). And I was sitting in chapel on Sunday morning, turning over in God's company what contribution I was supposed to make to the household of grace - then the thought came to me, 'Sunday School'. Afterwards, I went into the place where they have coffee, in search of some information - and found the people to be quite desperately short of Sunday School teachers. So I said I'd help out.

This is just personal news rather than thorts - so, sorry if you came looking for thorts and there are none here: it's just that all thorts are being poured into my Lent book right now (and most of my time as well).

Just waving, then, and saying hi to you my friends.