Funerals, Memorials and Spring

We are waiting on tenterhooks for the swifts to return to Norwich. In summer 2021, we had six nest boxes installed, under the eaves, on the side of the house. It was too late for that breeding season, so we will only learn if the birds find them attractive in the next few weeks. We are told to encourage them by playing recordings of swifts calling. The conservationists warn that it may take a couple of years before birds choose to nest in our boxes.

The story of swifts is a counterpoint to sadness I have experienced over the last weeks. In early May we attended the funeral service of Joan Watts (3 June 1926 to 8 April 2022). A long life and, as the person who took the service told us, a happy and good one. We knew her as the sister of Arthur Duffield, whom Ailsa had befriended as part of her bereavement support network. Arthur died two years ago. He was a widower and as neither he nor his sister had children, that direct lineage ends. Joan lived and managed on her own, amazing considering she had a leg amputated.

The service was held in a Baptist Chapel in the Broadland tourist town of Salhouse, about 20 miles away from our house, a mere 30-minute drive. English Heritage records that the chapel was built in about 1800, so it is an important part of the ecclesiastical history of the region. There is not much more information anywhere else though, which is a pity.

There are a small number of marble memorial plaques on the walls. I counted just six, and three of them were for members of the Nichols family. The patriarch was Fitt Nichols who died on 9th May 1835, aged 72. The previous year he buried his daughter Suzanna aged just 14. His son, Robert died the following year aged 36. His wife, Mary lived to 1858 when she died aged 85. So, looking at the plaques we can see that Robert was born when Fitt was 37 and Suzanne when he was 57. His unusual name seems appropriate. Mary was 27 and 47 respectively. There is no record of other children, so there may not have been any. However, there are no records of stillbirths or pregnancies not carried to term. An interesting family.

The chapel is redbrick, with an inside balcony on three sides. There is a baptismal pool at the front. Obviously, this is covered when not in use. There was a small congregation of mostly elderly people. Usually, the singing was quite impressive, helped by the minister’s loud voice. I’m not certain it was always tuneful, but then who am I to talk? It is a sign of my upbringing that I knew the first verses of the hymns, and all of ‘All things bright and beautiful’. The second verse, which we sang as children, is now considered inappropriate for a more equitable (but capitalist) society, and is excluded. It is:

“The rich man in his Castle,
the poor man at his gate;
God made them high or lowly,
and ordered their estate.”

The writer Cecil Frances Alexander (1818 to 1895) was a stalwart defender of the establishment. The rich men in the castles were the English Protestants, the poor men the Irish peasants. This was written about the time of the Irish potato famine that killed a million people and led to the emigration of another million. There is no sense of irony!

Joan’s funeral was a celebration of a long life, and was age appropriate. I can’t say the same for the memorial service for Owen Sharp (19th September 1956 to 6th April 2022) on 14th April. I wondered which of my friends would be the first to die, and how I would feel. Of course, it crossed my mind that it might be me, and I wondered how they would feel. As we go through life these events, always inevitable, come closer. We don’t eye each other up hoping the reaper will turn his or her cold gaze their way first, but we know, like the servant from Baghdad, the appointment cannot be avoided.

That story is “The Appointment in Samarra”. It is an ancient Mesopotamian tale from the Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 53a.5-6 retold by W. Somerset Maugham in 1933:

“There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture, now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.”

Owen’s passing means I have lost a dear friend. We had a long and deep friendship, one that included me and three boyhood friends. The four of us, in age order, were me, Jon Salisbury, Owen and David Crush. It lasted through lengthy periods with little contact, but always had the certainty of being picked up with ease. We really got to know each other in the fifth and sixth forms. I have written about the school before. Waterford was established as ‘an all-boys, multi-racial Christian school’, that would admit anyone who passed the entrance exam. As it became apparent that many faiths were represented in the student body and parents sought to have their daughters educated, girls were admitted. Thus, the school became a coeducational and multifaith establishment. It educated the children of the anti-apartheid elite (and me).

I was the first. David came soon after. Owen was next to join us, his parents moved to Swaziland in the early 1970s. His father, Sir Edward Sharp, was a baronet having inherited the title from his grandfather, the founder and Chairman of Edward Sharp & Sons. The company were manufacturing confectioners and their best-known product was Sharp’s toffees. The fourth member of the group was Jon Salisbury who came from Botswana for the 6th Form and A levels.

The last year of school, 1974, was wonderful. We were on the cusp of independence, the schooling was, as far as we knew, excellent, and the social life was fun. Senior students were allocated ‘cubicles’, small concrete cells with space for a desk, wardrobe, and bed. Free periods were spent making endless cups of tea and toast, using small, gas fuelled stoves. At the end of the final term (December 1974) we went to the Lourenço Marques Restaurant in Mbabane for a final meal, a post-mortem of the term, and a discussion of where we would be next. We all applied to UK Universities, so immediate destinations were known.

In 2006 three of us, Jon, Owen and I turned 50, having been born in 1956. David, a 1957 baby, lagged by a year. The idea of getting together had been percolating for some time and so we planned to meet in Paris to mark David’s 50th. We had such fun that we decided to repeat it the following year. In 2008 we met in Amsterdam from 31st October to 3rd November. I had a favourite hotel in the centre of the city, the Hotel Wiechmann where we stayed. This was mostly a real treat! We enjoyed the food and the wine/beer at the little café’s and restaurants near the hotel, and walked all over the city being tourists.

At the end of the evening in Paris (2007)

At the end of the evening in Paris (2007)

As David had driven to Amsterdam, we had his car at our disposal. We decided to drive down to Scheveningen on the coast, it is almost a suburb of the Hague. After a continental breakfast at the hotel, we set off. Owen was the only one to help himself to the cold meat buffet provided as part of the continental breakfast. Halfway to our destination he began sweating heavily and shifting uncomfortably. Something he had eaten was reacting badly. He requested an urgent, a very urgent, stop. Fortunately, there was a service station with a toilet, and he disappeared for a while.

Proof that we ere in Paris (2007)

Proof that we were in Paris.

The final time we met as a foursome was Jon’s 60th birthday weekend in May 2016 in Plymouth. He and Katie hired the old fort above the city, a Landmark Trust building. The officers’ quarters are available as bedrooms (in various configurations from two to four to a room), and there is a kitchen, lounge and across the courtyard, an excellent party venue with a bar and dance floor. The walls of the fort have magnificent cannons at intervals. People who hire the place have it completely to themselves, and once the huge wooden main gate is locked and barred, must stay. David remarked if we worked backwards, we left school in 1974, 42 years previously. If we went 42 years back from 1974, it would have been 1932. An interesting perspective on time!

At the Fort in Plymouth (2016)

At the Fort in Plymouth (2016)

My comment on my blog – which seems very puissant now was:

“It is a source of some sadness to me that I did not organise events with my Swaziland friends and family to mark my major birthdays. I guess if I make it to 70 then I should start making plans as soon as possible. There is no doubt though these birthdays marked a real time of transition for us. Two of the four have retired and one is about to. I, on the other hand, will probably keep working for another five or so years. It will be interesting to see how we change and indeed if we do. I feel that after being at school together and sharing formative years we have not changed… but who knows.”

It was, I think, Owen’s last overseas trip.

The outstanding, and final, road trip was with Owen and David. Owen organised a tour of the KwaZulu-Natal battlefields for David and me. It was amazing. We stayed at Owen’s home on Friday, 24 November 2017 and set off in his vehicle the following day. Our first stop was the ‘Mandela capture site’, where Nelson Mandela was apprehended in 1963. The memorial is a remarkable sculpture of iron cut-outs giving a profile of Mandela’s face. It was a good way to start, being reminded how miraculous it was that South Africa had a peaceful transition from apartheid.

The next stop was Spion Kop, the site of a Boer war battle in January 1900, a fight over a strategic hill on the route to the besieged town of Ladysmith. It was a sobering sight, lines of whitewashed stones marking where the British soldiers had died and been buried. We stayed in the delightful Accacia Cottage at the Spionkop Lodge and the following day moved on to one of the defining battles of South African history. The Battle of Blood River was fought on 16 December 1838. The Boer trekkers were attacked by overwhelming numbers of Zulu warriors. They circled their ox wagons into a laager and held off the impi’s. This is very significant for the Afrikaans population of South Africa as it was seen as confirmation of God’s blessing on their ventures. The water of the river turned red with the blood of the combatants, hence its name. It was marked by a holiday, the Day of the Vow during the apartheid era, renamed as the Day of Reconciliation after the transition to democracy. The site with its circle of concrete wagons is in the middle of an area of empty veld.

Mandela Memorial Capture Site

Mandela Memorial Capture Site

Burial Trench, British Soldiers on Spion Kop

Burial Trench, British Soldiers on Spion Kop

We then switched to the Anglo Zulu conflict with a visit to Rorke’s drift. This was a hospital and supply depot for a British invasion force fighting against the Zulus. On 26 January 1879 a large force of British soldiers was overwhelmed by the Zulus at Isandlwana. It is estimated over 1,300 were killed, only two escaped and they were subsequently killed as they fled towards Rorke’s drift. Again, it was an eerie sight, an isolated hill in remote Zululand dotted with white cairns showing where soldiers had fought and died. There were some defensive positions on the steep slopes of the hill, one can only imagine how the soldiers must have felt as they watched the army below them being overwhelmed and slaughtered knowing they were next.

The Battle of Rorke’s drift lasted through the night of 22 January 1879. A garrison of about 155 men, held off thousands of Zulus. Eleven Victoria Cross medals were awarded to the defenders. The battle was immortalised in the 1964 film Zulu starring Michael Caine. The site, as indeed all the sites we visited, has been well maintained and gives a real sense of the dramatic events. We stayed in a cottage at the Fugitives Drift Lodge.

This trip brought the bloody history of the province to life. The battles between the Boers and the British; the British and the Zulus; and the Zulus and the Boers are well documented and memorialised. It is a pity we do not seem to learn from them. It was a fantastic tour and Owen’s meticulous planning made it run smoothly. He recorded we travelled 1,005 km, spent 14 hours on the road, and about 18 hours at the various sites. In addition to this, much wine was drunk and excellent food eaten. It is something I will remember with gratitude for a very long time.

Wagons at Blood River

Wagons at Blood River

Isandlwana with white cairns visible

Isandlwana with white cairns visible

Rorke's Drift

Rorke’s Drift

On the battlefield: Isandlwana

On the battlefield: Isandlwana

This is a longer blog than usual. It has been a time of sadness and contemplation. I miss being able to talk to or write to Owen. I miss his endless WhatsApp’s, all of which he thought were either funny or thought provoking. At his memorial the eulogies talked about his meticulous planning and unwillingness to deviate. The term OCD was used. This was not the boy and man I knew.

We can’t know when we will get to our metaphorical Samarras. It is clear that it comes ever closer. What is more important is what we do with the time. Owen was first diagnosed with cancer in 2016 but was determined to live a full life. He provided an example of someone who did this. I feel privileged to have called him a friend. It is hard to realise that over 50 years of friendship have ended. I am going to contemplate this and what it means to me.

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