Yesterday I received the sad news that John White had died. This fine man lived a couple of doors away from my parents' home. He was part of the universe of people that orbited around me during my formative years.
On hearing of John's death I recalled a speech he held a few years ago to mark his 80th birthday. The section that stuck most in my mind concerned John's views about technology and the future. The spectacular advances made during his lifetime prompted him to muse on all those unimaginably exciting inventions still to come.
I was inspired and invigorated by John's unbridled optimism. It was so refreshing to hear someone look forward to the future with hope and excitement instead of the usual fear and foreboding.
Yet this wide-eyed enthusiasm was tinged with sadness: John confessed how frustrating it was to know that he would not live long enough to witness the 21st century at first hand.
So, thanks, John. The speech you gave upon reaching your 80th birthday remains with me still. Your words are a continual reminder that we should disregard those among us who habitually dismiss "old people" as timid technophobes who don't understand the present, fear the future and long for the good-old-days.
Our best hope for the 21st century is to live it with the same sort of eager curiosity as that expressed by John White as he was about to begin his ninth decade on the planet.
Sculptor: Sir William Wilson (1641-1710), c.1680
William Cavendish, the First Duke of Newcastle-upon-Tyne
is notable in Nottingham not Newcastle
on the site of a slighted castle that has been unfortified
upon the façade of a fired house that is no longer a home
above a door that is now a window
that looks into a room without a floor
of a pioneering public art gallery
which has now been
privatized behind a paywall.
assaulted, belittled, castigated, decapitated,
emasculated, flayed, goaded, hobbled,
incapacitated, jinxed, kiboshed, lacerated,
maimed, nobbled, ostracized, pelted, queered,
rubbished, slated, traduced, usurped, vilified,
whacked, xoanoned, yoked, zapped
Sculptor: Joseph Durham ARA, FSA (1814-77)
JULIUS LUCIUS BRENCHLEY,
BORN at KINGSLEY HOUSE, MAIDSTONE, 30th NOVEMBER, 1816,
DIED at FOLKESTONE, 24th FEBRUARY, 1873.
After many years of travel, returning to England, he bought,
laid out, and transferred to the Maidstone Local Board the
adjacent Public Garden, and at his death bequeathed his
collections of Natural History, Books, and Works of Art to
Trustees, with an Endowment for their preservation and
exhibition in this Museum.
Llareggub, by Dylan Thomas (detail)
Now the town is dusk. Each cobble, donkey, goose and gooseberry street is a thoroughfare of dusk; and dusk and ceremonial dust, and night's first darkening snow, and the sleep of birds, drift under and through the live dusk of this place of love. Llareggub is the capital of dusk.
Dylan Thomas, Under Milk Wood, a Play for Voices (London & Melbourne: Dent, 1954 / 1986), pp.79-80
Order of service
_Two weeks ago I was sat at my mother's bedside. She was dying and she knew it.
At one point during her long ordeal she suddenly let out a cry of "Oh no!"
Worried, I asked her what was wrong.
"It's Hayley Tucker's birthday and I haven't sent her a card. Can you do it?" Later, as her health deteriorated, she changed her mind and asked me to telephone her instead. "You don't mind doing it, do you?", she asked anxiously.
That was so typical of Barbara Ann Burch. Even as her life was coming to an end she was thinking about other people. People like Hayley Tucker, one of her sister's many former girlfriends. Or her neighbours: she asked me to tell them that they were "the best friends I could ask for". She had so much love for them.
We can therefore only begin to appreciate how much love she had for her family. It's not easy to convey just how important we all were to her.
That's why I brought this along.(1) We are all bound up in this bible. It was a Christmas present to Barbara from her mum and dad when she was 12 years old – the same age as her second granddaughter Eloise is today. It's crammed full of ephemera such as letters, children's drawings, pictures of her siblings and even a copy of her grandparents' marriage certificate.
There's also a photograph of Barbara Prince aged 3. She's sat on a swing looking at a dog called Spot. Next to it I found another scrap of paper with the words: "I like the dog. You like the dog. You and I like the dog". It was written by my brother Nick when he must have been about the same age as his daughter, Grace.
Thanks to this copy of the bible I know that my other brother Chris weighed 6 lbs, 7 ozs when he was born on 7th May 1969 – and that he had more than doubled in weight by 17th July. He's still growing.
Then there's a dashing photograph of my dad aged 18 and looking frankly gorgeous.
On the inside cover of the bible my mum had written what were for her the four key events in her life: marriage to Martyn and the birth of me and my two brothers.
I've spent quite a lot of time looking at that photograph of Barbara and Spot. What dreams and aspirations were going through that little girl's mind as she sat on that swing looking at her dog? She was then aged just a bit older than her youngest grandchild, Charlie.
He together with his sister, Grace and their cousins Ellie and Sian were my mum's absolute pride and joy. The health problems and chronic pain that afflicted her for so many years would miraculously fade away at the chance to be with them and feed them endless meals.
I get the distinct impression that this has always been the case. The home of my newly married parents must have entertained frequent visitors. Moving to Kent inevitably meant less contact with her family but she thought about you always. There was a special place in her heart for her brother Christopher who died so long ago.
Her sister Gill, I think, had a second mum in Barbara Burch.
So although she had no daughters by birth, she acquired them through life. I know how much my wife Cecilia, Chris's wife Natasha and Nick's partner Nikola meant to my mum.
It's fitting that the last person that Barbara spoke to was her husband, Martyn. With nearly her last breath she declared: "Mart, I'm dying". It didn't sound like fear. It was more a statement of fact. When I heard those three words I was reminded of a quote from Peter Pan to which my mum often referred: "To die will be an awfully big adventure."
But be in no doubt: Barbara Burch was in no rush to embark on that journey. She fought and fought when so many others would have given up. Her list of ailments was epic.(2) She'd had a bit of her brain removed as well as a part of a leg; one toe; an appendix; a hip and a few teeth. Her spine was crumbling, her arteries were blocked, and her joints were riddled with arthritis.
But no one would have guessed this from looking at her.
Going to the hospital with my mum always left me feeling a bit awkward. If you had to choose which one of us was in search of specialist medical treatment, who would you pick? This vibrant, cheerful, stylish and perfectly presented woman? Or her skinny, pale, tired, miserable-looking son?
Even as a corpse she looked beautiful.
This, however, belied the sheer bloody brutality of her death. In the many hours spent at her bedside I found myself encouraging her to – in the words of Dylan Thomas – "lie still, sleep becalmed".(3) In the end I was roaring her on, urging her to keep fighting. It was so characteristic of Barbie that, when all seemed lost, she suddenly opened her sightless eyes and exclaimed: "I'm alive!"
My mum gave me the gift of life. In her final hours she gave me the gift of death. It was a privilege to be with her when she died.
I accompanied my mother in the ambulance that transferred her to London. I'll never forget the look on her face as she stared up at the imposing façade of St Thomas' hospital. She knew, I think, that this was to be one fortress that she couldn't scale.
It was fitting that she should finally be defeated in a little patch of St Thomas' hospital that will be forever Wales. The Coronary care unit of St Thomas' is dedicated to the Welsh-speaking cardiologist, Evan Jones who died in 1969.(4)
Barbie's love for Wales was encapsulated in the poetry of Dylan Thomas. He has been an immense comfort to me in the days since my mother's death. Thomas' poem "Do not go gentle into that good night" was dedicated to his father. But his words are universal.(5) The notion that "Old age should burn and rave at close of day" was carried out in full by my mother.
In that poem Thomas refers to those whose "words had forked no lightning". That was true of my mum. Beyond those lucky enough to be related to her or live next door, few people got to know her. She didn't attract attention like lightning does – she was far too modest for that.
We live in a society obsessed with celebrity. This makes us overlook the heroes and heroines closer to home. Those unspoken people who are locally famous.
There are lots of stupid educated people out there. Barbara Burch was an enormously intelligent person. But she was deprived of formal education. Her chronic illnesses prevented her from exploring the world or developing a career. She was an immensely interesting individual, but lacked self confidence and, alas, self worth.
Her giving nature made it easy for us to take her for granted.
It was these facets of her personality that prompted me to ask that Psalm 138 be read during this service of remembrance. Barbara Burch's modesty fitted the love of a god who "regards the lowly" but looks askance at the arrogant and stuck-up. My mother's loving nature was rooted in the "steadfast love and... faithfulness" that she learnt at Sunday School. Did you know that, as a little girl, Barbara Prince secretly dreamed of being a missionary? Illness in later life meant that she, to quote Psalm 138, "walk[ed] in the midst of trouble".
That same psalm calls on God to "preserve [us] against the wrath of [our] enemies". The idea of Barbara Burch having enemies seems wrong. But she did have internal foes – self-doubt, a lack of confidence – plus that ultimate opponent: Death.
Death is an enemy that we must all face. But my mum taught me that even this seemingly invincible adversary can be defeated – by love.
The English language only has one word for love. The Greek language has four. They are storge (meaning familial love and affection); philia (friendship); agape (charity), and eros or romantic love. Barbie was full to the brim with them all – no more so than when she was lying dying thinking of others.
Alas, a day will surely come when there is no one left alive who remembers Barbara Burch. But the qualities she espoused will live on in all those who came into contact with her. My personality and that of many of you here have been positively influenced in an infinite variety of ways by that truly remarkable woman. And for that we should be eternally grateful.
Knowing that we'll never again spend time in the company of Barbara Burch is terribly, terribly painful. "It's hard to smile" when "there's nothing left" and "[a]ll is gone and run away".
Those words come from the song that my mum wanted you to associate with her now that she has left us: it's Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel's "Come up and see me, make me smile".(6)
Barbara Burch is now "in [her] country heaven".(7) So please do go up and see her, make her smile.
(1) The Authorised King James Bible (London & New York: Collins, 1956).
(2) Barbara Burch's medical history included Cushing's syndrome which led to brain surgery and the removal of her pituitary gland at John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford in November 1984. As a result of this she was obliged to take replacement hormones for the rest of her life. An appendectomy took place at the (now closed) Kent and Sussex Hospital on 9 December 1989. It was there that she suffered a myocardial infarction – i.e. a heart attack – on 23 June 1999. This led to a triple bypass operation at St Bartholomew's Hospital on 20 September 1999. Other ailments included diabetes insipidus, fibromyalgia, osteoarthrosis, rheumatoid arthritis and osteoporosis (the last named caused her spine to curve and the necessity for a hip replacement). Towards the end of her life she had to have a toe amputated and, in May 2009, she fainted due to low blood pressure. In the resulting fall Barbara sustained fractures to her right fibula and an open fracture of the tibia, which became infected with MRSA. Expert plastic surgery was required to avoid amputation of the leg. Around the same time she was diagnosed with hyperlipidaemia, oesophageal erosions, hiatus hernia and a severe vitamin D deficiency. Barbara Burch eventually died due to an acute type A aortic dissection (a tear to the inner wall of the aorta).
(3) "Lie still, sleep becalmed", poem 155 in Daniel Jones (ed.) Dylan Thomas: The Poems (London: Dent, 1990).
(4) Evan Jones (1907-69), "Obituary", British Heart Journal, vol. 32, 1970, pp. 559-560.
(5) "Do not go gentle into that good night", poem 162 in Jones, 1990.
(6) "Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me)", written by Steve Harley (& Cockney Rebel) (1975, 4:01, EMI).
(7) "In country heaven", poem (a) in Jones, 1990, pp. 215-216.
Barbara Burch's funeral was conducted by the Reverend Richard Birch at St Mary’s Church (Teynham) on Friday 10th February 2012 at 1 o'clock. The order of service is available here, as is the eulogy I gave. At 2 o'clock her body was lowered into plot 166 of Deerton Natural Burial Ground (www.kentnaturalburials.co.uk).
Para, jämsides med.
En annan sort.
Bevingaren, 1980: 90
Even a parasite like me should be permitted to feed at the banquet of knowledge
I once posted comments as Bevingaren at guardian.co.uk
Note All parasitoids are parasites, but not all parasites are parasitoids
Parasitoid "A parasite that always ultimately destroys its host" (Oxford English Dictionary)
I live off you
And you live off me
And the whole world
Lives off everybody
See we gotta be exploited
By somebody, by somebody, by somebody
<I live off you>
Germ Free Adolescents
is a short step.
The word is
now a virus.
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