‘The trouble with religions is they talk far too much about God!’ These words, spoken to the Revd Jamie within five minutes of meeting him, say a lot about mother. She disliked showiness, pretence and anything bogus. She had a very sharp mind – and it was sharp right to the end – and a knack for cutting to the truth when you least expected it.
She was the second eldest of five children, born to an engineer and saintly mother – who was herself one of 13, and people said took after the Queen Mum.
Doris grew up on the edge of the Fens in Peterborough surrounded by many friends and this large and loving family. I know she would be so delighted to see you here today.
We knew that we could always depend on her for quiet and sure counsel – even if it wasn’t necessarily what we wanted to hear. She shared with my father Noel a delight in providing impromptu hospitality, sometimes for slightly bemused complete strangers he brought home from Sonning.
Doris’ family moved down to Reading before the war, and her first job was working for old Mr Heelas at what became John Lewis. She loved returning to Peterborough to keep the books for her uncle Joe, who had peacocks, ran a farm and took her to watch his horses race.
Later she worked for a remarkable insurance broker called Sam Loades. It was there she met her first husband, Stan. Mr Loades was famously generous, showering the newly-married couple with regular gifts even after she was assigned to war work for the Inland Revenue. There she was asked to set up Reading’s P45 section ‘because you know as much about it as any of us’.
Doris and Stan helped her younger brother Ronald Allen realise his dream to become an actor, supporting him through RADA and seeing every production. She loved the theatre, and remembered meeting stars like Richard Burton and Vivien Leigh who she met on the set of the first Titanic film, A night to remember. Stan’s work took him to Birmingham and especially Newcastle where she delighted in the warm character of the Geordies.
Doris and Stan eventually parted and she was whisked off to Australia by Noel who she met on a Farmers’ Union holiday on the river Rhine. They were amazed to discover they had been born in the same street, and she was enthralled by his stories of sheep-shearing in the bush and dam-building in New Zealand. In Adelaide she worked on the Australian Stock Exchange where she said it was pointless speculating ‘because even the brokers never made any money’.
When they returned to England ‘because you’d better choose between Australia and me!’. She persuaded father to take a job at the flour mill in Sonning, which she remembered from her childhood trips along the river.
For Linda & I, that we were brought up by the most wonderful mother almost goes without saying; she brought these same qualities to her role as grandmother to Sarah and Katy.
She threw herself into community life, having great fun organising a fund-raising auction for the primary school. She became secretary of the Pearson Hall and helped oversee its refurbishment. She was produce show secretary, founded the Sonning Art Group and was an enthusiastic member of the village table tennis club. She loved the Burns Nights, the Elizabethan evenings at the White Hart and a famous ‘tramp supper’ where everyone dressed as vagrants.
Our mother loved the natural world. She took great pleasure in sharing what we children called her ‘kitchen sink discoveries’ – an upturned glass that moved on its own on a meniscus of water, or the sudden flash of a colourful bird seen from her belovèd kitchen window. She loved the SUMMER, and especially our three-week escapes to a beach-hut at Mudeford. There she rested from the hard work of making ends meet, whether providing bed and breakfast for four students or keeping the books – and my father – on track in the newspaper business they ran together.
Our mother loved the AUTUMN, as a time of harvest. She and a group of friends had great fun helping out with the potato picking in Sonning Eye and she made pots of jam with the soft fruit my father grew in the garden.
Our mother loved the WINTER and delighted in remembering how we children, just arrived in England, were got out of bed to watch the magical snowfall down by the river, in the light of the French Horn floodlights.
Our mother loved the SPRING most of all. She was an accomplished artist and in that season took great pleasure in going out to paint. She joked how, long ago, she had studied art and was awarded the prize for ‘the most promising student’ – because she had come on from such a very poor start.
For her, the Spring was a time for new beginnings; for the reawakening of nature after the dark of winter. So whatever we are now feeling, I know she would want us to be comforted and to look forward – just as it says in our second reading.
Doris began to succumb to debilitating illness three years ago, stoically bearing the pain and discomfort, with the regular support of so many loving friends and neighbours. She kept her ability to look on the bright side, even to the end.
The day she died, she listened at Sue Ryder – where they took the most wonderful care of her – to a choir that sung ‘Hark the Herald’. Jamie said prayers with her. Two days before she had told me – somewhat wondrously – that she’d taken communion for the first time in some 70 years.
This was a good life, a simple life, a true life, and a life of LOVE.
‘May she rest in peace and rise in glory’.
Listen to 'Bist du bei mir' as an MP3 sung by Elio Battaglia
An old friend died today. She was at home in bed and there was a horrible fire. Her partner had left for work, she called for help from the window but it was no good - nobody got to her. She was still in her forties. Not even the dog and cat she loved so much were saved.
Life had been really difficult for her lately. Her mother dead, the family home sold. Depression. But she had this easy laugh that bubbled up from somewhere deep inside her and her smart questions always left me struggling for an answer.
When we were young anything seemed possible, but things don't always work out. I'm thinking of her now, looking hard at me, tossing her head, and laughing.
Live in a 400 year-old house and you grow accustomed to the closeness of the past. Reminders of those long gone are many. Ten generations born, living and dying here, each leaving their traces, some obvious, others more subtle. Work the garden and the soil gives up the stuff of others' lives.
The dark loam seems animate, constantly pushing to the surface unexpected bits and pieces: a little wooden whistle, lost in a child's contented game a century or more ago. A mangled lead buckle, its decoration twisted by a bonfire that consumed an unwanted dress. Big old pre-decimal pennies, never again to be spent, one of solid bronze from the time of the Napoleonic War. Broken clay pipes, discarded by other gardeners 200 or more years ago. And the countless potsherds! Many of them red but most blue willow pattern, the fleeing Chinese lovers long since broken apart: this shattered plate fragment from a service given as a wedding present, accidentally dropped or perhaps hurled to the floor in a blazing row.
Weeding the rose bed a couple of years ago, I picked out of the earth a beautifully-lettered Boots cherry tothpaste lid. Since the First World War it had lain safely hidden, deep in the same soil which had now, wonderfully, given it up. It reminded me a happy few weeks in my boyhood spent digging over a midden left by our Victorian predecessors.
The glass and stoneware bottles we recovered shed light on past lives. If the number of syrup of figs bottles is any guide, constipation was a real problem in the 1940s. We found just one of Hiram Codd's fascinating glass ball sealed fizzy pop bottles (the origin of the phrase 'codswallop').
Solid aquamarine torpedo-shaped bottles containing lemonade made to William Hamilton's 1809 Dublin patent. Trapped air bubbles and the the heavy, imperfect blue-green glass makes these old bottles seem intriguing and precious. Beautifully embossed lettering and transfer-decorated stoneware, proclaiming the names of long-lost local ginger beer manufacturers: Lovibond and the Ive Brothers of Henley-on-Thames, (patent Galtee More closures), the Tunbridge Jones Company of Reading.
The Boots logo must be one of the most enduring on the High Street. Its present-day lettering is almost identical to that we found on late 19th century medicine bottles. Salt-glazed ink pots with a pouring lip, a dark green Bovril jar that makes even that product alluring, and cobalt-blue poison bottles, heavily ribbed to warn the blind of their dangerous contents. I even found a complete Victorian spittoon, perhaps half-inched from a local pub by a boisterous local lad, and then embarrasedly discarded on the rubbish heap.
They say that the sense of smell is the most evocative: the brain is so wired that the connection between memory and odour is the most direct. The smell of a certain floor polish instantly takes me back to school days, when a big polishing machine with soft spinning disks was always swung over the wooden floors at the end of the day.
This Christmas it was the sense of touch that connected me to the past. Reading The Cottage Smallholder's post about making your own butter I decided to try to make some for the brandy butter. Soured cream 'churned' in a food processor suddenly 'breaks' into little pieces of butter. Wash it in iced water, place on a cold marble slab. Pat into shape. A rhythm soon develops, the pat slapped this way and that, residual buttermilk flowing out - the movements reassuring, not learned, but somehow bred in the bone - instinctive and natural. My mother helped for a while and remembered that the last time she had made butter pats was 70 years before, at her grandmother's at Fengate, long since bulldozed for the Peterborough ringroad.
The mill house at Fengate was already rubble the first time I saw my Great Uncle Joe Hinkins. We children glimpsed the demolition site by peering through a high fence. We were told how Joe and his 12 siblings had been brought up in a beautiful, ancient, rambling house there. The old windmill had burnt down in a notorious fire in 1919. Joe now lived in Chestnut House next door, where we were fascinated by the gorgeous peacocks wandering round the yard. His father dealt in horses, and famously once filled his bowler hat with gold sovereigns after a particularly successful day's trading on Peterborough market. Young Joe kept the horse and cart outside the pub while his father drank the profits. When he grew up Joe was a sworn tee-totaller.
When it was his turn to continue the family business, Joe kept on a few cows and the dairy where a rat infected with Weil's disease killed another great uncle. As Peterborough spread closer, Joe sold some of the fields to the football club but leased them back for grazing. He still went to horse fairs, and kept an interest in several race horses. Several times he took us racing. But given that progress could not be denied, Joe dealt in secondhand cars, building up a successful business on the site of the old farmyard.
Everyone knew him as the kindest of men, given to spontaneous acts of generosity. Once, quite without warning, a harmonium turned up at our house. Joe thought we might like it. The story goes that when he became ill, one relative called a lawyer, not a doctor and talked the old man into changing his will solely in his favour. Aged just 66, Joe died soon after, in June 1977. The local gypsies, to whom he had been so generous, turned out in their finest clothes, standing silently all along the way from Chestnut House to the funeral.
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The Thames at night. Dark outlines of tall trees on the bank side. It is a magical summer evening. In the moonlight, the engine of the little boat putt-putts gently, its prow pushing through a layer of eerily beautiful river mist that rests on the water, but does not obscure our view ahead. We are on our way home after a good pub dinner. On the walk back to the boat we passed Shiplake church, where tiny glow-worms shone brightly in the darkness. We met a retired schoolmaster who was conducting a glow-worm census. He described the few weeks when the females "recline as if on a deck-chair" in the long grass, illuminating their tails in the hope of attracting a mate.
For 12 years I've had a share in a wooden boat, chosen in the yard at Peter Freebody's where the consummate salesman told his daughter 'these two nice young men are deciding which of these two lovely boats they are going to buy'. We named him Cuthbert, not after the Lindisfarne saint called the "wonder-worker of England" but because the name jumped out of a list at random. Just 13' long, built by Freebody's in the fifties. An inboard 1.5hp Stuart Turner R3M engine, made in Henley like the thousands ordered by Butlins for their hire boats, with glamorous teak Riva decking and a dark blue hull set off with a line of fine gold.
Cuthbert always turns heads, often in admiration, but sometimes in sympathy, since the Stuart Turner has a reputation for cantankerousness. Before shelling out for a professional re-build we even attempted an engine overhaul ourselves, hand-cutting seals, and cleaning out decades of gunk, referring to the original manual with its alarmingly complex diagrams and wonderfully mysterious line 'a spare jet is always a convenience'. From being a complete novice I have been initiated into the frequently infuriating idiosyncracies of Stuart Turner engines. We have uncovered a world of specialist experts, beavering away in their intriguing workshops: engine restorers, cover cutters, tiller turners and master boat-builders for whom 20 coats of varnish is the norm.
The adventures we've had! Admittedly most because the engine failed, or we set out too late on a trip that took longer than expected, or because we simply forgot to put petrol in. The locks we've worked by hand late at night, the weirs we've drifted perilously close to and the money we've spent! Trips to the regatta, hanging on to the boom in mid-river as fireworks exploded all around us, the water a mass of dazzling reflections. The rudder we somehow lost in a lock. I was bereft. I even contemplated sending down a diver, but someone was found who could make a replacement, even better than the original. Twice vandals loosed Cuthbert from his mooring, scattering cushions (we found them being looked after by a bemused swan) and leaving him drifting. He (or was it she? - I could never decide, as boats are always female) was even in a car accident, after his trailer bearing failed.
A complete professional re-build of the entire engine, extensive work on the hull, much re-painting and re-fettling inside and out. Family picnics and late-night trystings, an epic journey to the tidal Thames, and even a wedding, when the newly married couple travelled to their reception beneath a flower-bedecked bower. A Sun-trained photographer bawled 'over here darling!' as the bride boarded. Toffs on gin-palaces toasted them in champagne and swimming boys spontaneously roared their approval.
At least three relationships bloomed because of trips on Cuthbert. Two friends were introduced to each other and taken out for evening trips on Cuthbert several times before one of them shyly confessed 'we thought we might go out together - only without you, this time, I hope you don't mind!'.
But now, after all the excitement, the traumas and the adventures, we are finally selling.
On our last trip I caught sight of a sudden flash of brilliant blue. I watched as a kingfisher dipped and rose through the air just ahead of us, leading us back to the mooring and to four lives without one very special boat called Cuthbert.
On the other side of the river used to live a retired Doctor who made good money as a Crematorium Medical Referee. He gave permission for thousands of cremations until it was his turn to go up in smoke. A friend's father was a worker there, once the electrically operated curtain closed around the coffins. Another friend had a summer job at the Crematorium, cutting the grass on the remembrance lawns. He joked about the corpses rising out of coffins as the furnace lit, and the taste of ash in his mouth as the mower trimmed the grass. The crematorium is a smooth-running production line, twenty minute slots, one entrance for the bereaved, another exit, the next party already lined up outside.
While some make their living out of it, most of us like to avoid thoughts of death. In plague-ravaged 15th century Europe people felt differently. Ars Moriendi (The Art of Dying) was the most popular block-printed book. It gave simple instructions on how to meet death, avoid temptation, and make a triumphal entrance into Paradise.
People often say how quiet it is at night here, since we are less than three miles from Reading town. But the night is far from silent: aircraft into Heathrow, motorbikes along the main road, and late night trains, slicing the air, tearing down into Brunel's great cutting, four years to build and four lives lost.
At around 3.30am these sounds fade. This is the 'dead of the night'. On a windless night, you may just hear the clock on the church tower strike the hour. Most nights there is only the river, falling five feet over the weir. This is white noise, indifferent and unchanging, seemingly endless - the roaring sum of all sound and the sound of nothing.
In the crematorium chapel, there is a different kind of quiet, almost solid silence, stifling. Dark oak, the lectern and pews, and an organ. At my aunt's funeral a friend played Jerusalem for us at the end of the short service. William Blake's words, written in 1804 as a preface to his epic poem 'Milton'. Blake recalls the myth of a young Christ in Glastonbury and looks to a second coming when paradise will be attained. The music by Parry, for a rally of the votes for women campaign in 1918, with orchestral elaboration by Elgar. The organ played loud and strong, drowning our voices, making our hearts pound, filling the silence, and for a moment, there was hope.
What a pity it would be if the authorities were to strip out the organ and replace it with a juke box for hymns.
Yesterday I took down my father's full size scythe for the first time since his death in 1990. He looked after it well, cleaning and honing the long blade, ideally shaped for cutting down the nettles at the bottom of the garden. The long wooden handle, with its two hand grips worn smooth from years of use, curves with potent elegance, making scything a kind of dance: my body twists as the blade slices, lopping the heads off the nettles as they fall to the ground. But I've never used my father's scythe before, and I haven't yet sharpened it and the blade catches on something tough in the undergrowth. He always took care never to do that. The thin, curved tip of the blade is torn and as I fiddle with it pointlessly, comes away in my hand. And in that moment I am suddenly ashamed as I hear his voice in my head: 'now that wasn't a very clever thing to do'.
Such a vivid dream last night. I was standing on the beach at Mudeford, where I spent many happy holidays as a child. A strong wind was whipping up the waves, rocking the sailing dinghies riding up and down on the water in the harbour. I could hear the metal rigging repeatedly striking their aluminium masts and saw Peter Bath standing in the shallow water.
'One of the south's most colourful and best loved businessmen', he died on December 22, 2006. I knew him as the owner of the beach hut next to ours. When we were 12 or 13 he lined a group of us up in front of his hut to hold an impromptu exercise class 'Peter says touch your toes - now jump up in the air!' Soon dozens of kids from the beach were joining what became a daily ritual. When we were older he took us water-skiing and on mackerel fishing trips and as a teenager I joined in with nightly games of 'bankrupt whist'. He was always the kindest, most jovial of uncles I never had.
Some wondered why the owner of a small airline and a chain of travel agents chose to spend three weeks of every year in a wooden hut without a bathroom that was less than 24 foot square. Truth was that he (and we) were blissfully happy doing the simplest things: wandering over Hengistbury Head with its rhododendrons and Iron Age barrows, walking down the beach for ice cream in the beach café, fishing for crabs from the ferry mooring or just watching spectacular sunsets over Christchurch Priory.
In my dream Peter stood in the water holding the painter of a fast blue Solo sailing dinghy. He had just rigged it and the boom was jiggling back and forth in the breeze - as if the boat was just waiting to get sailing. Peter held out the boat's rope to me, inviting me to climb in and sail off across the harbour.
Pleasing to find the GPO's film Night Mail on YouTube, not least because of the 3D lettering in the title sequence. Auden's words have such terrific over-the-tracks rhythms in the 1936 short which apparently 'starred' a parallel-boilered locomotive 'Scots Guardsman'.
This photograph by Beaton shows Auden pale and interesting, rather than with his celebrated old man's limestone pavement of a face.
One hundred years after his birth there's much debate as to his ultimate literary merit, with conferences and even a dedicated website. In 1972 he was guest of honour on Michael Parkinson's chat show. How many poets achieve that today? Whatever posterity's judgement, the Night Mail is reminiscent of rap poets like Benjamin Zephaniah.
These fashionably dumbed-down days, Zephaniah is most definitely in the poetic driving seat, with Auden lost in a cloud of smoke somewhere in the buffet car.
Plaintive thoughts on Remembrance Day morning
A cold, grey morning on a village green in Oxfordshire. A patch of marble chippings and three of us clutching our wreaths, lined out before the little war memorial.
The names of a dozen or so from the village, fallen in two World Wars. The parish priest's surplice catches in the breeze, but his voice is that of a millitary chaplain, clear and uncompromising.
He calls out the prayers for peace and reconciliation. A light aircraft drones overhead, an aimless buzzing. "Perhaps it's Douglas Bader!" – a quiet voice behind me jokes.
To my left, a representative of the British Legion. She is smartly dressed, as she is every year; gloved, medals pinned to her coat: "or it could be my Tommy!" she says, so softly.
We walk to the memorial in turn, gently place the wreath, step back and bow our heads for a few moments. The British Legion standards are dipped and then are raised again as we all declare 'we shall remember them!'.
Afterwards a frail hand suddenly rests on my arm. At the memorial, for a moment, she stumbled and almost fell: "trouble is I'm not used to these high shoes any more". And then a smile and "goodbye then – until next year!".
So said film-maker Ismail Merchant, who died on 25 May aged 68. His belief 'in doing things in the most unorthodox manner' made him a genius at raising funds for films like his favourite 'A room with a view', and for 'Howards End' and 'Maurice'. Often derided, 'costume drama' is nowadays a term of abuse, apparently signifying overly lavish sets, the rustle of crinoline and limp romanticism. But for me there is a joyfulness about some Merchant Ivory productions that is out of sync with our predilection for gloom and complaint. Helena Bonham-Carter's Lucy has a passion for life, for Italy and for love itself that puts her at odds with convention.
I was in Bruges for a friend's birthday last weekend. After showers we enjoyed the medieval townscape in the just-washed clarity of bright Spring sunshine. Lovers seemd to be everywhere and in the glorious Orangerie it was a little like a Merchant Ivory production. Champagne and smoked salmon from the buffet for breakfast, with a view over the sparkling canal from a richly furnished room in a former convent. Tea from a Georgian silver pot, linen napkins, fresh strawberry and pineapple and little cakes made from the richest Belgian chocolate.
At the Musée Royaux des Beaux Arts, Brussels I loved the loose brushwork and lightness of this painting by Magritte. In the Arentshuis museum in Bruges are paintings and prints by Sir Frank Brangwyn (1867-1956) – one of those artists whose work seems due for re-evaluation. His painted work is almost frivolously sunny and optimistic, while his prints are wonderfully dark and brooding. Anglo-Saxon dourness and mistrust of the unfamiliar probably lay behind the rejection of his sumptuous 'British Empire Panels' intended for the House of Lords and finally displayed in the Brangwyn Hall in Swansea. A similar dourness and disapproval of anything arty must be the reason why a relative of mine burnt some of Brangwyn's original drawings, given to a family member who was Brangwyn's chauffeur and one of the first licensed drivers in London.
One the train home, two young American men with close-cropped hair gazed at each other and kissed and canoodled. Long live unconventionality.
Telegraph obituary for Ismail Merchant
IMDB filmography for Merchant