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



Joyful said...

I love your tribute to John and all the photos of him enjoying life. You've been blessed to know a good and gentle man. I wish for more men in the world like him. God bless. xx

simone antoniazzi said...

Oh Caroline, I am so so sorry to read of your loss, I really am...I read this....and then read it again and cried all the way through it.

Your beautiful words about John describe him in just the way I imagined him to be....a gentle & lovely man. And funny too....I laughed out loud at "Tony Blair" and some of his other sayings made me smile. "Stainless Steel" made me laugh too :)

He sounds like a true gift of a man, someone very special - how wonderful that you found each other.

I read your previous post in which you said that you were glad that John hadn't found out about his illness any sooner really...and I completely understand that.

Your loss must be enormous though, I cannot even imagine and I am sure in some ways it must feel as though you have barely had time to catch your breath these last couple of least, for John, the end came quickly and I hope that his suffering was not too great.

My mother really likes Gilbert & Sullivan and I listened to it a lot growing up, I am familiar with the song that your local group sang at John's funeral, what a perfect song for him.

I am so fond of your blog Caroline, so much of what you say about John could describe you too...gentle, clever and funny springs immediately to mind. I love that last photo of, you look perfect together.

Please know I am thinking Caroline, lots of love to you,
Simone XX

Sandy said...

Lovely. Just lovely. Simone says most of what I would add. {{{{HIGS}}}}

Diz said...

Such a poignant tribute makes me long for a love that will be as true and as strong as yours. You give me hope that this divorced girl will find it.

Please know my thoughts and prayers are with you. You will hear his feet again...somehow the heart will hear it, and you'll share your blog with him...because no matter where he is, he'll always reside in your heart. I'm a witness to a love that will last forever, and I am grateful.

Coral Wild said...

Dear Caroline

What a beautiful tribute to John. I found it incredibly moving as I am sure all who heard it did.

I cannot imagine how the loss of such a gentle, loving partner in life feels. But, for you, now and going into the future, I wish that the gaping black hole is softly and gently filled with joyful life once again.

Thinking of you.


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