Address given by Miles Wynn Cato, Friday 7 December 2012, Clavering church.
It is a great and very personal privilege to be addressing you at this my father’s funeral. In the course of grappling with what to say, and indeed how to say it, I have thought a good deal about other funerals I have experienced and what they have meant to me. It is often said that a funeral should be a celebration of somebody’s life rather than a time of sadness. There is indeed much to celebrate about my father’s life and I know that the Memorial Service planned for next spring will give ample opportunity for grateful reminiscence. But this afternoon we have come together to bear witness to the committal of Dad’s body to the cold earth. So let’s not shy away from grief on this of all days but instead face our loss and the reality of this man who, like all of us, was magnificently cast in the image of his creator but who also, like us all, bore the flaws of his humanity.
The first funeral I can remember, and the last I came to at this beautiful church, was 34 years ago when Justin Kirkpatrick, the best friend of my childhood, succumbed to leukaemia. We were fourteen years old and, as his family’s garden adjoined this churchyard, we often played here – we even got on the roof once, much to the consternation of the churchwardens. As a child, there was something quite bewildering about the experience of his departure. On the day of his funeral, the naturally overwhelming grief of his family seemed to me to be subsumed into the fabric of this ancient building, and muffled by the rites of the service.
As an adult, it is all very different. Funerals no longer bewilder me – there is no ambiguity about why we are here. This is my third in a year bookended by black. My grandmother went first – gloriously retired at the turn of this year, after a century and, as popular parlance would have it, she had a very “good death”. A few weeks later we emerged into the churchyard at Anstey, a few miles west of here, to find a huge yellow moon shining silently over the frozen snow-covered land. Charlie’s was not a good death and at 48 it was much, much too early. To have asked any of his family and many friends why they had packed shivering into that little church on a dark Tuesday afternoon in February would have been like asking a parent why they kiss their children goodnight.
This afternoon, to complete 2012’s bleak trilogy, we are gathered for my father, each of us drawn variously by love, duty, friendship and respect. Dad’s certainly wasn’t a “good death” either, but it was long expected and we have been spared the gut-wrenching shock and pain of a life taken without warning and any possibility of a goodbye. Despite his drawn-out suffering, there were blessings in Dad’s long illness: particularly the ample opportunity to spend time with him. As the MND took hold, he had no choice but to surrender his fierce independence and, as he became less able and inclined to drink, a better, kinder, more authentic man slowly emerged. This gave me the willingness, at least to try to say something meaningful to him when fleeting chances presented themselves, in the knowledge that his breath was slowly but irrevocably draining away.
My father was an unusual man full of the contradictions and complexities, the inevitable legacy of any unwanted child brought up in a home with love in short supply. But while such a start in life so often produces a tendency towards self-destruction, Dad had that innate drive and determination that seems to be an equally powerful force in the minority of those who are born with nothing but their own God given gifts.
While we were looking through some of his papers, my mother and I came across one of my Dad’s old school reports, written when he was nineteen. It is from the Principal of the Hammersmith School of Building and Arts & Crafts. He described my father as
“possessing a keen and inquisitive mind and having considerable self-confidence, he has pursued his studies with energy and determination.”
Going on to praise his role as Vice President of the Students’ Union, Captain of the Tennis Club & Secretary of the Swimming Club, the Principal went on to say that;
“During the summer vacation he has travelled extensively in Europe without adult guidance or supervision and in consequence he has a wider knowledge and considerably more self-reliance than is common in a person of his age. To sum up, he is a keen, intelligent young man who should go far in life”
Many of you will recognise this description of the teenager as a clear premonition of the adult we knew so well: prodigiously intelligent, ready to take on new challenges at all stages of his life, with a yearning for travel and a love of sport that saw him regularly playing 36 holes of golf well into his seventies. Such were his abilities, particularly in his work, that he came to the brink of great success in the property world. Had the oil crisis of 1973 not pulled the rug from under him he may easily have created a business empire to rival the best of them. But he was always remarkably sanguine about forces beyond his control in life, just like his namesake Cato, that great Roman Stoic. Perhaps the most constant lesson he impressed upon me, during my all too frequent moans about work problems, was to just keep going and not worry about the inevitable set-backs along the way. The pursuit of wealth for its own sake never seems to have been in my father’s make up and he always identified with that very British phenomenon of the heroic underdog. It is no co-incidence that his favourite television programmes included Minder, featuring the hapless Arthur Daley, and Only Fools & Horses whose Del Boy & Rodney never failed to make him laugh. In all his businesses, my father relished every challenge and he pursued every path with an admirable honesty, integrity and that most respectable of desires: to lay down a secure future for his family.
More than any other motivation in his life, I think Dad pursued that sense of belonging he was denied as a child. This accounted for his fierce attachment to his clubs, especially Lord’s and his beloved Royal Worlington golf club – he was a member of each for over forty years. He was undoubtedly at his happiest surrounded by a large group of old friends, preferably with an ample supply of champagne to lubricate the proceedings. To Dad, his family was really another sort of Club, the automatic membership of which he relished. He was sure of his right to the patriarchal seat at the head of the Christmas table and everything this symbolised, even if there were notable occasions when he failed to comprehend that this was a Club with obligations as well as privileges.
Although he declared himself to be an atheist, I know my father’s sense of belonging extended to this church and I can see him now, over many years, kneeling here in prayer on Christmas morning. Even if he struggled with the idea of almighty God, I am sure he valued the consistency of this place and that he sensed something enduringly English and apparently unchanging here – a bulwark, in his mind at least, against successive governments seemingly bent on the destruction of our indigenous culture and the moral fabric of our Christian society.
Undoubtedly, the single most transformative event in my father’s life was his marriage to my mother. For him, it was love at first sight and I have often been struck by the fact that I never once heard him comment on the attractions of any other woman. As his illness progressed into this last year, he looked to the beacon of their fiftieth wedding anniversary next March. It was not to be, but my parents, both highly independent people,
undoubtedly came together with a new closeness in the face of Dad’s sickness. It is hard to imagine that any wife could have dedicated herself with more dutiful goodness, self-sacrifice and sheer love than my mother showed over the long five years of my father’s decline. While I have been immensely proud of the uncomplaining courage Dad showed in the face of the relentless and merciless progress of his MND, I know I speak for my sister Chloe too when I say we count ourselves very blessed to have parents who faced their greatest test with such dignified strength and quiet forbearance.
This strength was drawn not only from God but from a deep well of friendship, community and service which sank ever deeper as the illness progressed. If I was to name everyone who gave their support we would be here for hours – many of you here today will know that I am talking about you and as a family we thank you with all our hearts. We are immensely grateful to so many good people in Clavering, particularly all ‘the old faithfuls’, the Pomfrets, Trevor & Sally from the Cricketers, our beloved Pat, my father’s secretary of many years Doreen and our faithful gardener Peter. We are indebted to ‘Paul the computer’ and ‘Jayne the sheep’, to Tony Griggs and Kit Orde Powlett, to Ollie and to Barry. We will never forget the seemingly limitless goodwill and utter dedication of Harriet Ross and her team of nurses whose exemplary care often went well beyond the call of duty. The impact you all had on Dad’s last months, and the difference you made to our family, is simply incalculable.
Also among us today are the two men to whom my father was closest in his life – his mentor, and the man he looked to almost as a father, Geoffrey Hanscombe, and his very old friend Dr Michael Long from Australia. Thank you is a grossly inadequate word for everything both of you did for him and all you have done for us. If Charles Darwin was correct in saying that “A man’s friendships are one of the best measures of his worth” then by commanding the loyalty and attachment of such admirable men as these, my father succeeded in one of life’s most vital tests.
So the time has come to say goodbye to my father, as you may say goodbye to your husband, your father, your grandfather, your uncle, your father-in-law, your brother-in-law, your old friend, the man you worked for or the man you nursed. Remember him how you will – I will remember days like that one back in the early 80’s when he took my friend Charlie and I to the bottle collector’s fair in Milton Keynes. After a heavy snowfall, Charlie had hitched a ride the day before on a tractor to the nearby village of Brent Pelham, which we just managed to reach by car to collect him. The journey to the show took 5 hours by train via Euston but Dad took us because he didn’t want us to miss the event we had been looking forward to so much. That’s what good Dads do.
Now I dare to hope that my father and Charlie are both somewhere better, perhaps watching a game of celestial cricket, enjoying a cigar together, and knowing they will always be loved by so many they left behind.