Wednesday, 13 November 2013


It would have been John’s birthday today, 13th November.  He died almost 8 months ago, but to me it feels like only yesterday.  In that time I’ve gone through various stages – and not necessarily the ones labelled by psychologists.   A blogging friend in Chile said something that made sense, that I can consider myself to be over the worst when I can look back with nostalgia instead of pain.  I’m still wondering how long it will be before I stop feeling that I’ve been cast out to sea towards some unknown and distant shore. 
The legal issues when a person dies are only just being resolved now.  There were things of John’s I wanted to keep, and most of the rest were sent to good homes, but there were plenty I forgot about, and they have appeared around the house to surprise me and make my heart stop from time to time – brandy still in his brandy flask; his little stash of 50 pence pieces for the bridge toll; his favourite ginger jellies languishing at the bottom of a large jar; a box with his witty musical compositions; his metronome. 
Christmas is looming, and I wish I could disappear to a desert island till the new year, instead of avoiding invitations where I can, and sleepwalking through the ones I can’t.  I’m not lonely and have always been fine in my own company – it’s the absence of John himself; the absence of his devotion, nobility, generosity and loyalty that’s the problem.  I know that by shutting myself away I risk being forgotten about, but that will have to take care of itself when the time comes.

Another sadness hit me in August – one of our beloved companions, our 12 year old ginger cat Rusty had to be put to sleep.  Unbeknown to me he used to wander up the road – 10-15 houses away – and he had made friends with an old man who must have reminded him of John, and was there for him during the day when I wasn’t.  This man fed him, and as Rusty was diabetic, I was therefore getting his insulin wrong because I thought his appetite had slowed down.  In any case I was being very careful with the dosage.  Giving him too much insulin had resulted in a terrifying hypo during April when the vet only just managed to save him.  I hadn’t reckoned with this new unknown. 
One night he didn’t come in when I called him... and called him and called him till 1.30 a.m., and eventually gave up.  I wish I had done what John would have done, to walk up the road calling his name.  My neighbours discovered the following day that he had taken refuge in one of the old man’s thorny bushes when his hind quarters inexplicably ceased to function; unable to defend himself blowflies got to him and he was heard crying all night.  I would have heard him if I had not been too nervous to walk up the road in the dark.  I would not have been able to save his life, I know that, but oh I could have shortened his torment, poor little mite. 
Unaware of all this, I was anxious when I left for work the following morning and I asked my neighbours to look out for him.  They called me at work a few hours later when he was found, and we rushed him to the vet.  He explained gently to me that there was nothing further that could be done other than to numb his hind quarters and then put him to sleep.  I stroked him till I felt his life ebb away.
His ashes will go on John’s grave when I put red roses on it today.
Now it’s just his brother Banjo and me, and we’ve got closer than I ever thought a human and a cat could get.  I imagine he’s motivated by anxiety that his remaining meal ticket might get sick and go away too, but I also need him, and we comfort each other.  When I’m obviously sad he sits very close and rests one or both paws on my knee.  I’m so grateful he’s nervous of other people and is not the wandering type, which I think will help protect him from venturing into trouble as Rusty did.
Blogger friends know I love to write, and it’s a good distraction – I’m perfectly aware that this blog has been silent for too long, and I’m struggling to write a post which is turning out much longer than I expected and will probably have several parts.  I’ve no idea if the story of a remote village on the Indian frontier in Argentina in the mid nineteenth century will be of interest, but I hope some will find it so.  I’m sure that readers from the North American continent will find it follows a familiar pattern. 
I’d never make a good writer of history books – I need to be emotionally involved in what I’m telling you.  I want it to shock you as it shocked me, make you laugh and cry as I did.  Overall I suppose I’m trying to say “Argentina is a wonderful place; its heart and soul is not what you read in the newspapers.  Let me tell you about the extraordinary people who made this land.”  (And sometimes about the quirks of my own family).
To finish, I’d like to show you a scan of John’s last birthday card from me in November last year.  I had been nagging him about the idiocy of owning a mobile phone and never leaving it switched on.  Brought up during the war, the “Don’t-waste-the-battery” litany was hard to break.
Don’t give up on me – I’ll be writing about more cheerful subjects soon.  Meantime, don’t forget I’m still working at keeping my other blog going with daily brief entries – Eavesdroppings and Stories – just click on this link.

Saturday, 10 August 2013

Rescue in Somuncurá, Patagonia

(None of the pictures in this post are mine - alas. If the authors recognise their own pictures, would they please tell me and I'll be delighted to give them the credit) 

Somuncurá Plateau

When I visited Patagonia in 2008 and 2009 researching and photographing the background to the book I was translating, it was like going back in time to when Argentina was more relaxed and strangers were courteous.  I loved the silent landscape, the endless horizons, the whistle of the wind and the view of the entire hemisphere’s Milky Way at night.   I daydreamed of settling there, with my own little house in a quiet backwater at the foot of the Andes.
But life called me back to my place in Bristol, UK, and I made my regretful farewells.  Back in the real world I got into the habit of browsing online Argentine newspapers, keeping up to date with both my homeland as a whole and in particular the region of which I had grown so fond.  I used to describe it – and the tendency has grown stronger over the years – as being a bird circling Patagonia on thermals, hovering high above and far away, looking down with affection at what was going on, yet unable to land.

Last week I was captivated by a curious story in the online version of the Río Negro newspaper, which took me on my thermal to the plateau of Somuncurá, a 35,000 square kilometre, stretch of basalt 1000 metres above sea level in the provinces of Río Negro and Chubut.

It has expired volcanoes so ancient that the land is now only gently undulating, with occasional hills, shallow valleys and a few lakes.  Fossils prove it was once under the sea, and today it is home to unique species of flora and fauna, the most unusual being the mojarra desnuda, (Gymnocharacinus bergii) or a miniature species of river bream, measuring barely three inches in length and completely devoid of scales – hence it includes ‘naked’ in its name, and is found nowhere else in the world. 

Mojarra Desnuda
There are said to be vast reservoirs of water underground, but little of it reaches the surface, where rare species thrive – long legged black and grey frogs measuring 2.4 cm, multicoloured lizards and small creatures known locally as rats without tails which are in fact a species of marsupial.  Research remains sketchy and there is much to learn; not only about the fauna and flora.  Recently a crater measuring 5km in diameter was discovered by means of satellite images; the eventual analysis of its rocks rich in nickel, aluminium and cobalt should yield much about the history of the earth at those latitudes.

For humans it is an inhospitable place – in the native Mapuche language, Somun means speaking, curá means rock.  The rock that speaks – referring to the Andean and Antarctic winds that howl there for most of the year except in summer.  Temperatures fluctuate between -36 and + 35 degrees centigrade; 200mm of rain fall on it per year, some of it as snow.

Its population per square kilometre is a meagre 5 and mainly consists of people from the original Tehuelche and Mapuche tribes – the only ones who are inured to the tough conditions.  They are in the main crianceros, or livestock herders, and live with their families in huts made of stone and move around on horseback, since there are few proper roads.

They have no amenities, and their means of communication across the distances owes nothing to technology.  A type of resinous cactus bush grows there (probably the Maihuenia patagonica), and specimens located at a high point when set on fire serve the dual purpose of boasting to your neighbours that you are the first up in the morning, or if you have not heard from them in some time, to ask them whether they are alright.  You then ride over to check on them if you have received no reply. 

The story I read is about one such case last week.  It is mid-winter.
A shepherd had ridden to the town of Sierra Grande to report that an outpost 180 km away was experiencing difficulties.  The Torres-Liempi family was composed of three people, two of which were of advanced age, and in poor health.  They had not been seen for fifteen days.
A rescue team was scrambled in Sierra Grande.  Five fire-fighters and a male nurse with the shepherd as guide set off early on Wednesday 31st July in the fire engine, stopping off at the village of Arroyo Ventana to collect the council representative for the area,  a local resident and a further male nurse driving the village’s ambulance, and a policeman using his own patrol car.  There were therefore 11 people and 3 vehicles.

It was very tough going.  The convoy skidded about in the snow and mud and made very slow progress.  By two in the afternoon all three vehicles had got stuck.  The decision was made to continue on foot, and five of them -  one of the fire fighters, both nurses, the guide and the policeman - donned backpacks and set off cross country taking short cuts to reach the remote outpost before dark.  They trudged over the whitened landscape for 20 km skirting round hills and following guanaco paths, finally arriving at the home of the Torres-Liempi.
There they were surprised to find the family in good health.  The wires had got crossed somewhere along the line and there was no emergency. The family admitted however that they were running a bit short of food and were rationing what guanaco meat they had left. 

It was now dark.  The team left them the basic emergency provisions they had brought with them, and immediately departed again.  The Torres-Liempi, they said, were in fine fettle.
The return journey to the stuck vehicles was even more exhausting, as the cold of night had clamped down on them.  By 9.30 p.m. they were back with the rest of the party, and their short wave radios were not working because of the cold, so no communication with the nearest village was possible.  The ambulance was the only extricable vehicle, and six of the eleven people crammed into it and limped slowly back, reaching the nearest village at 3 in the morning.
On Thursday 1st August Sierra Grande sent out a team to rescue the remaining six people who had remained with the fire engine and the patrol car in temperatures way below zero, and a trailer was despatched at the same time from San Antonio to collect the stuck vehicles.
The reporter writing up the story on Friday 2nd August told readers that as at the time of going to press, these last two rescue teams had not returned to Sierra Grande and could be lost.

Since reading this story I have been thinking a lot about how we take our technology for granted, our modern roads, our easy lives.  One phonecall would have sufficed ... and perhaps a four-wheel driven vehicle.   I wonder if even in Buenos Aires, the modern capital, people are aware of how tough life is for some of their compatriots.

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Life After John

I was sitting on my back patio one evening a fortnight ago, looking out at the small garden which is very dry at the moment.  It had been a very hot day, with no rain for weeks – most unusual in this green and pleasant land.  My thoughts were far away but I suddenly became aware of two things – firstly that my two cats had quietly joined me and were sitting at my feet, and secondly that the scent of honeysuckle emanating from the hedge was so powerful that it had interrupted my reveries.  ‘That’s the lonicera’, I thought, ‘what a gorgeous perfume’…

From there it was just a step away from remembering that this is my blog name, and that I love my blog and don’t wish to abandon it.  Since then on several occasions I have sat at my computer looking at my last few entries, got bogged down and just stared into space.  But after several goes (when Freecell won), here I am, determined that I’m going to write a post.

Shortly I’ll be telling the story of Bell Ville, the village in Argentina where my grandmother and mother grew up, and have done all the research.  But first I would like to catch up with any readers I have left and who have been kind enough to ask me how I am.

It has been four and a half months since John died, and all I can think of to say is that I could never have envisaged how hard it would be.  I guessed at the crushing sadness I would feel, how much I would miss him, but didn’t realise how my mental state would dictate my behaviour.  I don’t want to go out, I don’t want to communicate, I can’t manage small talk, in fact I’d rather not talk at all.  I hate bright light; I hate noise and bustle, I crave silence although I can’t shake off the feeling that I’m screaming in a void and nobody can hear me, not even myself. 

I don’t care much about myself either, and am very grateful to the happy few who help me keep the house clean, the garden under control, the cat litter changed and the light bulbs replaced.  Long, soothing showers help, and as many hours of sleep as I can manage.  At the very beginning when I went to bed at night I would think – stupidly – that perhaps I would not wake up, or if I did I would find it had all been a bad dream; then later that John would come to me in dreams and talk to me – he didn’t -, and latterly it has just been a form of escape. 

Unfortunately it doesn’t stop there either.  Being the sort of person I am (this blog did after all start out as group therapy for living with the gastric band) I’m eating the wrong things, partly because I now have to do the washing up (!) and I can’t be bothered to cook properly except once in a while, and because certain foods give me pleasure to eat.  Don’t confuse this with comfort food.  Mash potato is comfort food.  Ice-cream is just pleasure, and very bad for my diabetes.  Merely giving myself a lot of insulin isn’t the answer, and I struggle to bring it under control.  I have to care; when I’m older and suffer the effects of my self-neglect I’ll certainly care, I’m sure.

I watch more television now than I have for years, staring at the screen and zapping backwards and forwards.  The British sitcoms are all old, I’ve seen them a million times – but Big Bang Theory is new to me, and it’s the only regular programme that makes me laugh.  It has also been good to see films from start to finish without interruptions, and Brokeback Mountain has been a wonderful discovery, joining the pantheon of my all-time greats such as The Shawshank Redemption and Silent Witness. 

I read a lot too, mainly on my Asus Eeepad.  I’ve become absorbed in biographies of celebrities I was fascinated by as a teenager – Jackie Kennedy, Grace Kelly, Natalie Wood, Elizabeth Taylor, Queen Sofía of Spain - because it’s easy reading and I don’t have to work too hard.  Last Saturday I read for seven hours straight; it was wonderful to forget about the world for that long.

Sometimes I deliberately conjure up John’s more annoying habits, but give up when I find myself wishing there were around to irritate me again.  When I sold his car I cleaned it out before it was collected, and in the door pocket I found a small pack of cigarettes with 8 of the 10 gone, and a lighter.  He had stopped smoking in 1999, so I was now looking at an aspect of John I had missed completely.  No wonder he had insisted on continuing to drive right up until he went into hospital; it was the only place he could smoke without me to nag him, and it was hardly going to make any difference then to his lung cancer.  The fact that it was a small carton meant that it was occasional – there were indeed times when I said I smelled smoke on him, and he would reply indignantly that sometimes he found himself with smokers, and must he take the blame for them too?  Perhaps it was his only pleasure, like me and my ice-cream.

The cats are my companions, they stick to me like glue when I’m not at work, and when I’m clearly upset Banjo jumps onto the sofa, sits down beside me and puts a paw or two on my knee.  I have the proof every day that cats are not merely self-interested animals, and that they are capable of great affection.  I don’t know what I’d do without them.

Plenty of humans have helped me too, and I’m grateful.  For my 60th birthday in mid June my friend Michèle and her husband with her daughter and family came over from Argentina for a holiday and spent a few days with me, and my sister and brother-in-law joined me for the day when we all went out for a birthday lunch.  A couple of weeks’ later we gathered on the south coast at the home of an aunt who had recently lost her husband of nearly 70 years, and when my niece, her husband and His Gorgeousness my adorable great nephew aged 4 came along too, as well as my uncle, aunt and cousin from Guildford.  My sister made a beautiful birthday cake.  It was unexpectedly  comforting to be surrounded by relations who had known me for so long.

On the actual day of my birthday, Saturday 15th June, I had a houseful of people – seven of us altogether counting Michèle’s two grandchildren, when the doorbell rang and flowers were delivered.  I had to sit down when I read the card that came with them – Happy birthday Tich, from Humph.  I learned later from John’s daughter Jo that when she had been visiting him in hospital in February, he had asked her that in case he wasn’t around for my birthday, would she send me something nice from him, and she promised she would.  And here, almost three months to the day since his passing, was a beautiful bunch of flowers and a bottle of wine from him (see picture top of post). 

My only thank you undelivered.


Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Help me to be a better driver

 Last Autumn I was visiting relations near Worthing on the south coast, and unbeknown to me was clocked doing 57 mph in a 50 mph speed limit area.  The forbidding-looking Penalty Notice in bold black print arrived a week later, which informed me that I could either have points on my licence or I could attend a half-day speed awareness driving course in the geographical area where the offence was committed – a two-hour drive away from Bristol.
I opted for the latter (most people do) and presented myself on a cold January morning just after New Year.  I had been on one of these courses before in Bristol six years earlier, and knew what to expect, but was interested to find out whether the focus of the course had improved or varied from one region to another.  Not really in both cases: it left me once again wanting to have a rant – and this time I’ve got a blog on which to do it. 
The speakers rambled through the importance of keeping to the speed limit, the potential fatal results to yourself and others if you don’t, the distances you need in which to come to a halt after braking according to the speed you’re doing and the prevailing weather conditions, a terrifying video about an accident, quizzes to test our knowledge on speeds, distances, survival rates, percentage of different types of accidents in the United Kingdom, the dizzying multiple rules about speed limits according to what sort of road, how many lamp posts there are as you’re going through a village (yes, really) and so on.  This was all very worthy and valid, and it was important to be reminded of these facts. 
My rant is that this is simply not enough.
Give me the facts, certainly – but it’s essential to address the psychological reasons why people speed, carve each other up and are generally inconsiderate on the road.  We need to be forced to confront ourselves and our insane behaviour when we’re behind the wheel, and to be given the tools to deal with it.
This is what drivers need above all:
Road Rage.  How to stop ourselves from feeling road rage – what anger management arguments will stop us in our tracks?  How should we react when others show road rage towards us?  How should we deal with a driving situation caused by another vehicle which is patently unfair to us?

Age.  The age factor – the younger and more hormonal men and women are, the more intolerant and quick to anger we are likely to feel.  The older we are the more likely we are to make mistakes;

Unrelated problems.  When we’re on the road, how to compartmentalise our personal problems so that they don’t affect our driving;

Asleep at the wheel.  How to deal with tiredness and general lack of concentration – apart from opening the window and turning on the radio;

Competitive behaviour.  How to deal with competitiveness on the road: I’m not talking about being boy racers here, but a situation that happens to me every morning, on a stretch of motorway with a 50 mph speed limit.  The car in the next lane is large, and doing (say) 50 mph, and I’m in a small car being squeezed over, with another car behind me – so tempting to up the speed slightly to 55 mph “just to get passed him”, yet we risk being caught by speed cameras.

Lorries.  European lorry drivers urgently need to be taught all this on refresher courses every year, as they drive for a living, and tend to use their large vehicles to gain advantage – like the classic bully in the playground.  The type of accidents their mistakes cause are far more serious.  I’m tired of hearing that x number of people were killed because the continental driver forgot that we drive on the left.
There is one area – drinking and driving – where in this country all these aspects are dealt with strongly via powerful advertising and in other media, and I understand that drink and drive accidents are lower than in many other parts of the world.  I believe we have the Scandinavian example to thank for that.
The course was a half day one – and I believe that what I’ve mentioned above needs at least another half day, and should not be restricted to people who have been caught speeding.  We should all be forced to go on these courses with refreshers every two years, or risk losing our licences.  The extra cost should be met by us the drivers.
At both courses six years apart I asked the question about dealing with these psychological issues, which after all lie at the bottom of most road incidents.  I was told there were no plans to incorporate this into their course, and it would be too expensive anyway.  None of the speakers said “Good idea though”.  One of the attendees was a barrister (lawyer) of some standing in London who drives a sports car and in a jokey fashion conveyed how he was rather proud of the way he had avoided speeding offences (up until this one, that is).  I would say he was in dire need of being pulled up by his bootstraps and being forced to go on a driving psychology course, if it only existed. 
Is this a woman’s viewpoint then?  Does male pride come into it?
This is a crowded little country where most adults own cars, goods are rarely transported by rail and lorries from the continent are now permitted free access, including the very heavy goods vehicles, for which roads and bridges have been strengthened.  This is a lethal cocktail, and it is unlikely that drivers will be persuaded to give up their cars for public transport.
Do you have the same problems in your country?  Do drivers respect speed limits?  Do they respect drink and drive laws?
I’d love to know your thoughts on this – if you think I’m wrong, do tell me why.
Photo Finish
From Lonicera's digital archive


Sunday, 7 April 2013

Good night and God bless (II)

John Dillon Humphreys, 13/11/1927 – 18/03/2013
This is the text of my tribute to John given in the church where the funeral service was held, with images from the presentation on a loop given at the venue where refreshments were offered afterwards:

"I was loved by a wonderful man for 26 years.  
I met John in 1985, when I volunteered to help backstage with the Bristol Opera company as a way to recover from divorce.  It was agreed that I should dress in a peasant girl dress and cap at the forthcoming sing-through of Merrie England, and offer round trays of marzipan in the interval.  I’m amazed to think of that now; I must have been really desperate to climb out of the hole I was in to do something so conspicuous and way out of my comfort zone. 
John then invited me out for dinner, assuring me over and over that he wasn’t trying to date me because there were 25 years between us.  I joined the backstage team at the Bristol Opera Company helping with the makeup during the week of the opera, and I gradually started to cheer up, and put on weight thanks to all the dinners to which I was being treated by John.  He has always called me Tich because of my height, but the irony did not and continues not to escape me.

I learned about his working life as a civil engineer, and on one occasion we travelled round the country visiting various dams he had been involved in, notably Winscar, the first asphaltic concrete dam in England, of which he was the proud designer.  I still can’t believe that he encouraged me to bring along tapes of music I liked, because he told me he would be interested to hear them.  They were mostly folk music, to which he listened politely.  Knowing now of his total intolerance to any music that wasn’t classical, I appreciate that he must have been trying to impress me big time by pretending to like my favourite group, Steeleye Span - or “Stainless Steel”, as he called them.  I took him to one of their concerts once, and he could barely restrain himself from covering his ears.
I got to know him and gradually his family - Simon, Alison, Jo and their mother Blanche, and sometimes accompanied John and his elder daughter Alison on days out, such as flying in hot air balloons, sailing round Bristol harbour and exploring local beauty spots.  During this time I learned about Clifton Town, the folk opera about the Bristol Riots which he had written years before. 

He had already staged it at the Hippodrome by the time I met him, and a trimmed production took place in 1989 at the Theatre Royal.  I’ve always loved Clifton Town, and am grateful to Pam Rudge for singing “The Song of the River Avon” today.  It was Alison’s favourite song, and mine too, and in fact I named my house Avonsong after it.  It would be a dream come true to be able to stage it again one day.

I’d like to say we shared our hobbies, but it was more a case of John sharing mine.  He supported me with my photography, always keen to take me on assignments, always questioning my judgment on apertures, composition or systematic errors, and using the tripod for stability to avoid camera shake.  He would soothe me when I panicked because the camera suddenly didn’t work, encouraged me with the results, even when they weren’t that good.  We belonged to Backwell Camera Club, and he would push me to go on the evenings when I would have rather remained curled up on the sofa.  A member reminded me this week that although he came to keep me company, he always had questions to ask the speakers, usually prefaced by “I’m not a photographer, I’m just the stooge that accompanies Caroline Holder, and I’m known as Tripod Holder”.   (See pic below)

In the dark as we watched the slide show of the evening you would suddenly hear the obvious sound of John noisily unscrewing the metal top of his hip flask, and saying in a loud stage whisper “Fancy a tot of brandy?” to everyone around him.

For 5 years he escorted me to rugby games at the Memorial Ground when Bristol were playing at home, back when they were in the first division and I was taking pictures of the game for their programmes.  John and I would sit on the touchline usually in the pouring rain or sleet, munching his way through hard boiled eggs with bread and butter, Kit Kats, taking slugs of brandy while still managing to puff his way through a cigarette and hang on to my next roll of film, and call out instructions on which direction I should run to catch the try.  The miserable weather conditions which seem to go with rugby got to me in the end, but John was disappointed when I stopped.
In the last few years I have discovered the joy of blog writing, and John insisted on vetting the text before I uploaded it.  He always had valid points to contribute and mistakes to correct.  Oh yes, there was nothing he liked better than finding spelling errors.
He was unimpressed by my interest in languages though, sharing the popular belief that Englishmen are no good at foreign languages so you might as well stick to English.  He certainly proved himself right once when he was designated by his firm to entertain a bus load of visiting French civil engineers on a tour of various dams, and in an attempt to communicate better with them, as they traversed and earth-filled dam he conveyed his preference for large dams (forgetting that the French for dam is barage) by saying “Moi je préfère traverser les grandes dammes”, which left them open-mouthed.
I regret to say I didn’t share most of his hobbies, among which was inspecting anything under water, such as newts in the pond and various fish and octopus in the sea with his snorkel – it all seemed sort of creepy to me, though I found it more interesting when he started photographing them with an underwater camera. 

The behaviour of ants was fascinating to him, and when visiting my parents in Spain over many years he would sit by the pool staring down at the patio floor studying processions of ants, which he would follow and feed with various choice morsels to see how they reacted.  One year the ants carved a route through the kitchen, up into the cupboard with the pots and pans and through a hole in the wall to the bathroom, along the rim of the bath, up the wall and out through the window.  He spent a lot of time in the bathroom that year studying them, and waited in vain every subsequent year, but they had changed routes.
Sailing was a great love, and I failed miserably at this.  It was in his family, he had shared the fondness for this activity many years before with his wife Blanche – and I was absolutely pathetic.  I couldn’t cope with the concept of clinging on by my fingernails to a very large object swaying through water which didn’t stick to the left bank and which you couldn’t stop by braking.  We went sailing on the Broads once, and he could barely conceal his disappointment with my lack of enthusiasm for standing on the deck in bracing weather, legs apart, arms akimbo, being buffeted by icy rain, and instead took refuge in the galley.  He had said I’d be able to sit and trail my hand in the water and photograph birds, but it transpired I was expected to “help” – it was tote that barge and lift that bale, and dodge out of the way when the sail was swinging towards me while trying not to be sick over the side.
In fact if there was a requirement for curriculum vitae for starting relationships the “hobbies” section would have ruled me out straight away.
I did however share his interest for his type of music.  I enjoy opera entirely thanks to John.  His performing interests moved from light opera to grand opera and in the last 10 years back to Gilbert & Sullivan.  He was an enthusiastic supporter of the Bristol Gilbert & Sullivan Operatic Society, not just because he loved the music, but because he loved the people who formed part of the society. 
<< John singing "A policeman's lot is not a happy one" - (or as they say - not a "nappy" one...)
I doubt they’ll ever forget how he would encourage them into evil ways at rehearsals by - again - producing his hip flask with brandy at the drop of a hat.  They were his other family, and he didn’t miss a rehearsal simply because he couldn’t bear to do so, even near the end when he was so ill.  I’m so grateful to them for singing “For he is an Englishman” today.
Four score years and five is not a bad age to reach, and he had lived life to the full.  People will remember him as a gentle gentleman, a modest man, a kind boss who promoted staff with promise and never took the credit for their achievements, and as his former secretary Marion has told me, the most civil of engineers.  When I would quote to him the testimonials given by friends and colleagues, he could never understand why people liked him.  And yet everybody said he was such an agreeable man, and he couldn’t think why...

This may have been because he understood his failings – mostly.  His determination to only look at the positive side of people sometimes took on the naïve attitude of speaking up for Attila the Hun because he had always been nice to him.  However this didn’t extend to his instinctive dislike of certain television personalities, which I couldn’t enumerate because we would be here all day.  I will tell you about one though – during the endless questionnaires asked by different medical teams in his last few weeks, to the question “any allergies?” he would reply “yes, one”, then pause as their pens were poised in the air.  “Tony Blair” he would announce triumphantly – it took them by surprise every time.
During the early seventies he had cause to examine his own behaviour, and over a period of 3 weeks he knelt for twenty minutes each day in Bath Abbey, where he sought unselfish answers to many questions.  He eventually experienced what was for him an epiphany.  He realised that in searching for genuine selfless love within himself he had been looking in the wrong place.  Love was not something within him that could be shone onto others.  It was a light – or a loving spirit - shining onto him from outside, and all he could do was try to reflect it onto others.  He also felt it was reflecting onto him, forgiving him his past sins and telling him he wasn’t worthless.  He had sought and found a way to a possible future redemption, and he often told me that he was a different person from that day onwards. 
This Loving Spirit was always with him.  It was an immense comfort to him during the very sad time when the Humphreys lost Alison, and when his brother Peter died, and it enabled him to bear his own final illness with the most astonishing fortitude.
I can’t quite believe I shall never again hear his footsteps coming into my study as I’m typing away, and his saying “Whatcha doin’ Tich?”; or watching me park the car and unable to stop himself from commenting “The trouble with women is that they’ve got no spatial sense”; or coming back from Waitrose with his five oysters and calling out “’Tis me, I’m back!  It’s Handsome Jack!” or in reply to someone stating “You’re such a gent”, saying “It’s just my very good impression of a gentleman”. 
He had a warm, generous, loving personality and great personal integrity, and was immensely proud of his children and grandchildren Jack, Katy, Frankie and Rowan.  He also loved our cats, Rusty and Banjo, more than he ever believed he would.  He wasn’t just my partner but my best friend.  He helped me through depression, he spoke up for me when he could, always gave me his full support on every decision I made, and told me off regularly for under-valuing myself.  And he was that most extraordinary of men in my life – he loved me for myself, and for a very long time.  He was my oak tree.
“Go gentle into that good night”, dearest Humph, and as you used to say every night first to the cats and then to me, good night Humph, God bless."

A Prayer

~ Max Ehrmann ~

Let me do my work each day;
and if the darkened hours of despair overcome me,
may I not forget the strength that comforted me
in the desolation of other times.

May I still remember the bright hours that found me walking
over the silent hills of my childhood,
or dreaming on the margin of a quiet river,
when a light glowed within me and I promised my early God
to have courage amid the tempests of the changing years.

Spare me from bitterness and from the sharp passions
of unguarded moments.
May I not forget that poverty and riches are of the spirit.
Though the world knows me not, may my thoughts and actions be such
as shall keep me friendly with myself.

Lift up my eyes from the earth, and let me not forget the uses of the stars.
Forbid that I should judge others lest I condemn myself.
Let me not follow the clamour of the world, but walk calmly in my path.
Give me a few friends who will love me for what I am;
and keep ever burning before my vagrant steps the kindly light of hope.

And though age and infirmity overtake me,
and I come not within sight of the castle of my dreams,
teach me still to be thankful for life,
and for time's olden memories that are good and sweet;
and may the evening's twilight find me gentle still.


A few more pictures...

The willing model

In the Doghouse

The Shy Photographer

A Hand Sandwich...

Christmas 2001, with my family

The earliest picture of us taken together - about 1988


Friday, 5 April 2013

Good night and God bless (I)

John Dillon Humphreys, 13/11/1927 – 18/03/2013

Gentle, noble John, my beloved partner, passed away the day after I wrote the last entry. 
On 14th February he had been diagnosed with lung cancer and secondaries in his spine and liver.  Barely a month and four days later his exhausted body gave up the fight.  I had intended to nurse him at home where the two cats he loved so much would be close by, and with the assistance of district nurses, but he never returned from his second visit to hospital. 
His younger daughter Jo spent many hours driving up and down the motorway to provide support and company, and the load was made lighter by her presence.  The time we had with him was so very brief, but I would not have had it any other way.  If he had sought clinical advice about his extreme tiredness over the previous three years he may well have discovered that he had not escaped his years of smoking, and that every puff of the cigarette had been one puff of air less when he needed it the most.  However this would have meant three years of uncomfortable and painful treatment, with his strength and morale being sapped little by little, and too long to have to live with the awful truth.
At first when his mind was clearer we talked to him, and he was never in any doubt about how much he was loved, and by how many.  Although he knew what was happening he remained philosophical throughout and showed little inclination to examine his feelings – as usual.  Jo asked him once if he was frightened, and he replied “Not really.  But I am curious about what’s going to happen the day after...” 
In the last two days in hospital he slipped into unconsciousness, and on Monday 18th March I had just left at 1 p.m. after sitting with him since 5.00 a.m., and Jo was with him when he peacefully took his last breath half an hour later.  That evening my ginger cat Rusty was nowhere to be found, and for the first time ever in 12 years he didn’t come bounding in when I called him.  I tried at fifteen minute intervals till 1.30 a.m. then had to give up.  John would never have gone to bed until he found him, but I was just too tired and on autopilot.  I left the cat flap open but there was no sign of him the following day.  My kindly neighbours saw me unable to cope with all this, and set to work – one walked up and down the road calling him and shaking a box of biscuits, and the other called at every single house in the road asking the owners to check their outbuildings in case Rusty had got shut in by mistake.  There was no sign of him.
While Jo sorted out the intricate paperwork required after a death and contacted the vicar and funeral director, I started advising people by e-mail, and tried to explain to John in my head that in a matter of hours we had gone from a household of four down to just two – just me and Banjo, my other cat.  I also begged him to help me find Rusty.  I didn’t think I would ever see my little ginger cat again, wondering if a fox had got him or he had wandered too far and got lost.  He had a chip under the skin, but who ever cares about picking up a stray cat, taking it to a vet and having it checked just in case?  It all just about pushed me over the edge. 
So at 1 a.m. when Rusty casually let himself in through the cat flap in the study where I was sitting, I screamed and just about squeezed the breath out of him as I blubbed at him about his poor sense of timing.  He just purred.  His fur was in perfect condition, with no sign of his having been in a fight, or slept rough in the field behind the house; he wasn’t hungry – just thirsty because he had had no insulin for 36 hours – he was warm and unharmed.  Perfectly happy, and glad to see me.
I was determined to write a eulogy which I would read out myself at John’s funeral – in fact I had started it a couple of weeks’ earlier when he was still at home.
“Whatcha doin’ Tich?” he called out.  I stopped and went to sit on the bed with him.
“You’ll never guess.”
“Try me”.
“I’ve started on your eulogy”
“Saying anything nice?”
“Nope, I’m telling people just what a nasty person you were”.
We smiled at each other.
“Will you show it to me when it’s finished?  There could be spelling mistakes...”
“Of course Humph.”
“Don’t forget to tell them about Bath Abbey.”
“Of course Humph.”
But we ran out of time. 

Afterwards I had plenty of time in which to write it – in Britain funerals take place at least a week after someone has died, and my employers at the hospital had been generous with me, insisting that I take as much time off as I needed to look after John and recover afterwards.  I also had time to prepare a slide show for my digital frame with over 360 images of him, his family and friends. 
In between times I slept, the cats with me on the bed most of the time.   One morning a few days after his death, the doorbell rang at 05:17 a.m.  I had just changed the doorbell a fortnight earlier, from a buzzer to one with a Big Ben chime, like an old grandfather clock.  The first half of the chime woke me, and I had jumped out of bed in fright as the second half sounded.  I had no intention of answering the door; I put my head out of the dining-room window and called, but there was no one there.  Annoyed, I went back to bed, and as I drew the quilt back over my head I suddenly smiled to remember that John would get up between 05:00 and 05:30 every morning to let the cats out, and that – who knows – maybe he had made the doorbell ring to tease me, and to remind me to open the cat flap.
Rusty and Banjo followed me about the house all the time, and Rusty would bring me ‘presents’ of the feathered variety (alas) to cheer me up...  Then one evening I had to go out to John’s car to collect things from the back seat, and left the front door of the house open.  The bleeps and flashing lights from the remote control added to the slamming of the car door brought both of them galloping out the door at top speed.  Rusty realised straight away it was only me and ran off, but Banjo came right up to the car to where I was standing having just slammed the door and stared at me with his eyes as big as saucers.  There was absolutely no doubt that they thought John had returned. 
John had asked to be buried in a church cemetery in Bathampton.  In the family plot there, his elder daughter Alison had been buried in 1996.  She died at the age of 43 of complex neurological problems which had beset her from the age of 27, and he wanted to be with her, as will her mother eventually. 
We had expected some 50 people to attend the funeral on Wednesday last, the 27th March, but more than twice that crammed into the small church until there was standing room only.  A song of his composition about the river Avon was sung by a professional singer friend of ours, and twenty-five members of the Bristol Gilbert & Sullivan Operatic Society came to sing one of the best known songs – “For he is an Englishman”, (from HMS Pinafore) which described John so well.  His friend Bill read out a beautiful poem by Max Ehrmann, and I read out my tribute to him without mishap and was pleased and comforted when the congregation laughed in the right places and gave me a clap at the end.
Thank you, thank you for the supportive comments, and to all who showered me with flowers, cards and kind words, and to my relations and neighbours who continue to keep an eye on me.  It has buoyed me up when I needed it most.
On Monday 18th March 2013 the world stopped spinning for a brief while, but now it is back on its orbit, and I must take up my life again without John’s love and support.   

(I’ll share with you the text of my tribute to John in Part II, and the poem by Max Ehrmann)
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