It was around five o’clock on Thursday 15th June 1989 that I got the phone call to tell me my father had died. I contacted work to let them know I wouldn’t be coming in next day, sorted out some suitable clothes to take with me for the funeral, and early next morning set off on the eight hour drive down to West Cornwall.
Remembering my father, John Lewington
John Edwin Laurence Lewington was born on 28th August 1906, the only child of George and Ellen. He wasn’t quite an authentic Victorian, but he was definitely Edwardian – I think he would have liked how grand that sounds. In later years, he used to claim Scottish ancestry – on trips north he’d start saying Aye instead of Yes as soon as we passed Carlisle – but in fact he was born in Twyford, Berkshire, and his parents and grandmother also came from that county. His grandfathers were born in Hampshire and Wiltshire. Any Scottish links were largely fictitious, or by marriage not descent. (His mother-in-law’s father came from Ayr.) But he wasn’t above a little embellishment of his CV either. His military records state that he was “privately educated” – which I suppose he was, in the sense that he gained his qualifications at night school. He left school at fourteen, and in his words “was destined to be a civil engineer”. However, at 17 he joined the British Army of the Rhine, based in Cologne, and later, at age nineteen in October 1925, sailed to India on HMT Neuralia, via Port Said, to serve on the North West Frontier.
Faded sepia photographs of India
We have some faded sepia photos of the time he spent in Karachi, in October 1925, and Razmak in the Waziristan area (both now in Pakistan) as well as his visits to Agra and Chakrata (near Kailana) in May 1926, and Dehra Dun (December 1926). He would sometimes relate how he was sent undercover to do reconnaissance into the mountains of Afghanistan (presumably from Razmak on the North-West Frontier), but apart from that we don’t know much about his time in India. However, in 1927, when he was twenty-one, he was seconded to the Government of India, to work in a civilian capacity. From this he received in due course the princely pension of 12 guineas a year.
On 21st May 1931, he returned to the UK via Bombay (Mumbai) on the P&O ship RMS Kaisar-i-Hind, and became an insurance salesman. In 1932, he married Margery Fleming, four years his senior. They had a daughter Julie, born in 1936, but sadly the marriage did not last. (In 1946, Margery married Reginald O’Brien, who proved to be a loving stepfather for Julie.) At the point my mother met John, in the summer of 1947, he had been divorced for seven years.
A role in organising the 1948 Olympics
By that time, he was in the RAF, as a flying officer. He was very keen on swimming and running, and had initially been commissioned in 1940 to be a fitness instructor. In 1941, he was based in Iceland as Adjutant to 205 Squadron, and his role involved recuperation to fitness of military personnel returning from active duty.
In April 1942, he became Squadron Leader and commanding officer of a small station in the north east of England, RAF West Hartlepool . Throughout the forties, fifties and sixties, he retained his interest in sports coaching. He was a founder member and Chairman of the Torquay Amateur Athletics Club (1946), coordinated the Newton Abbot section of the Olympic Torch Relay in 1948, and coached the RAF Athletics team (1952). In some guidance, written in 1947, to athletes hoping to compete in the 1948 Olympics, he hazarded a view that twelve months before was not too soon to start training …
When John met Patricia ….
That August, he was coaching athletics at Loughborough College. My mother, Patricia Hanbury, had come over from Eire the previous year to work at a prep school in Grange Over Sands as a Froebel teacher, and she was at Loughborough on an art course. They met at a dance on Sunday 9th August 1947, and became engaged on Friday 15th. They were married five days later, on 20th August 1947, at Newton Abbot in Devon, and spent their honeymoon on the Scillies. Their marriage lasted for more than forty years.
The art of living
John and Pat had four children – Penny, Lindy, Shena and Patrick, and in due course, three grandchildren Kim, Tom and Matthew. John continued to serve in the RAF until 1961. He had been mentioned in despatches during the war (1942), but I don’t whether that was for gallantry or administrative efficiency! His postings had taken him to Iceland, to Ismailia on the west bank of the Suez Canal, Cyprus, the Sudan and to Gibraltar, before a final appointment at RAF Hartland Point in North Devon. After retirement from the RAF, he set himself up as an estate agent in Bideford.
He seems to have been quite active in the town in the sixties – he was Chairman of the Bideford Regatta Committee (1965), President of the Northam Chamber of Commerce (1966) and Chairman of the Bideford Arts Theatre Project. He was a founder member of the National Association of Estate Agents, and held membership card No. 1.
In 1969 he sold his business, and relocated the family to Penzance in West Cornwall, to study and promote “the art of living” as he called it, in a part of the country that he loved and which he felt had very special qualities – the Cornish light, the landscape, the people.
It was the beginning of a new approach to life. From that point onwards, he gave up wearing a white shirt and tie, and instead opted for informal short-sleeved open-neck coloured shirts. We started going to folk clubs (the Pipers Folk Club at the Count House in Botallack was a favourite) and eating chicken in the rough (with our fingers) off wooden plates at the Meadery in Trewellard. He spent a lot of his time trying to analyse what “happiness” really was – I recall that he once ran a competition, inviting essays on that topic. He described himself in those days as a hedonist.
His Cornish estate agency was based in an old blacksmith’s forge in Gulval, which he restored from a derelict building. He chose to specialise in houses with character, and his homes for sale featured regularly in the Daily Telegraph’s property pages. He wrote a number of articles on the joys of living in the south-west, and occasionally presented these on BBC Radio Cornwall’s Thought For The Day (Morning Sou’west). He also appeared on television several times – one afternoon in 1975, when I was living in London, I randomly switched on the TV and was taken aback to see him on screen discussing Cornish ley lines and the use of dowsing to detect water sources.
In 1972 he wrote to the BBC Nationwide programme to complain that his Hai Karate aftershave wasn’t attracting the numbers of young ladies featured in their advertisements, and that his wife wondered if he had been using fly spray instead. The BBC sent a film crew to recreate a bevy of girls falling upon him, and he got quite red in the face with excitement. Richard Stilgoe called out, “Mrs Lewington, I think you had better throw a bucket of water over your husband!” (Pfizer later sent him a parcel of aftershave for advertising their Hai Karate products …) Sadly, no archive footage remains of this programme.
Peter Pan Lewington
He was determined to live life to the full, and insisted that he didn’t intend to ever retire. “Peter Pan Lewington, they used to call me,” he’d say. Eventually though, diabetes and Parkinson’s caught up with him, and he became dependent on others for getting around. He finally retired from full-time work when he was in his late seventies. He was elected Honorary Chairman of the local Buffs Club (the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes) who provided him with a motorised wheelchair, and he continued to love the arts, painting and writing. His favourite books included Seven Pillars of Wisdom (T.E. Lawrence), and works by Tolkein and Colette. He was particularly fond of Kipling’s “Kim” and for many years had a quote from that book on his office wall: Those who beg in silence starve in silence. He wasn’t very much into classical music but he had a few records that he enjoyed listening to – “You’re My World” by Cilla Black, Petula Clark singing Charlie Chaplin’s “Love, this is My Song” and “Dominique” by the Singing Nun.
He hated being old, and tried to do it disgracefully, or perhaps recklessly – taking up smoking & drinking again in his later years. I think he resented his frailty, and that his assertion “age is only a state of mind” had been proved wrong. He died on June 15th 1989, and his ashes were scattered from the cliffs near Lands End.
Not the end …
That should be the end of my story, but I want to tell you what I remember from his funeral. One of my sisters couldn’t be there because she lived in New Zealand, so I borrowed a ghetto-blaster style video camera and left it at the back of the crematorium to film what happened. A few days ago, and thirty years on, I watched the footage again. I have been a funeral celebrant for ten years now, so I had a professional interest in seeing how it compared to what I and other celebrants can offer families.
I can tell you now that it was quite possibly the worst funeral I have ever witnessed.
What was so bad about it?
Well, we didn’t know what we were doing for a start, so that was the main problem. Although we had no alternative ideas for any kind of celebration of life ceremony, we knew a traditional church service was not appropriate. I had the job of contacting the local vicar who had been assigned to us and asking him if he would mind very much not mentioning God, or Jesus, or a belief in the resurrection … or anything really. He took me at my word, and from what we can hear on the video, he literally just read out some verses from the Bible that I had identified as not too dreadful (“In my Father’s house there are many rooms” seemed good for an estate agent) but there was no sermon as such. My brother, as unfamiliar with funerals as I was (I had never attended a funeral at that point, much less organised one) thanked everyone for attending, and expressed our appreciation for all the flowers.
A friend of my father’s had asked if she could say a few words, and she read a poem on the nature of friendship (see below). That wasn’t too bad – but then it was the end, the curtains closed, and the organist played something solemn but non-descript. I don’t recall us being asked to choose any particular music. The whole thing had taken no more than about ten minutes. We sat there. No one else got up behind us so we sat there some more. The vicar left and then came back and hovered near us for a bit. Eventually the funeral director came towards us and stood respectfully waiting for us to stand. The organist played another piece, and on the video you can see my mother, my brother and me all exchanging glances and whispering about whether we should leave yet. Finally, the funeral director motioned for us to go and we shuffled out, aware that we had made a mistake in staying so long for no particular reason. That wasn’t great, I must say … but then no one had thought to mention that we would need to leave first.
He wasn’t perfect
Over the next few days, I discovered to my surprise that I had a half-sister Julie who lived in America, and that she had four children, my nephews and nieces Mark, Sally, Matthew and Mary. We did get in touch some time later, which was wonderful, but I wish very much that I’d been able to meet her earlier, and that my father’s first marriage wasn’t kept secret from us.
We didn’t know what my father would have wished for his remains, so he sat in his urn on the funeral director’s shelf for the next seven years. A few months after scattering him from the cliff near Botallack (note to self, an off-shore breeze isn’t as helpful as you might think in those circumstances) we came across paperwork for the burial site he had paid for, to be with his parents at Fleet in Hampshire. (Ooops – sorry, Dad!)
I found out that he wasn’t quite as strictly accurate in his reporting of events as I had believed, and that a few aspects of his life had been, ahem, tweaked …. However, he had achieved quite a few things to be proud of, and I wish we could have celebrated those more. If only I’d known …
So, what would I have liked to be different at the funeral?
- I would have liked a guiding hand to steer us towards the possible, someone to explain what options there were for the funeral ceremony – music, readings, shared memories, perhaps the paying of last respects at the coffin-side? The kind-hearted vicar who assured us we could have “anything we liked” wasn’t as helpful as he was trying to be, because we didn’t know what we liked or didn’t like. Preparing a ceremony from scratch is hard when you’re doing it for the first time on your own …..
- I would have liked to have known what to expect, for the whole funeral experience to have been a bit more familiar, less alien – not rigid protocols but at least a framework of expectations of what “most people do” to use as a starting point for planning a ceremony. Perhaps I should have looked for a Crematorium Open Day?
- Most of all, I wish now that we had been able to share more about what made my dear old dad special – his achievements, his shortcomings, his unique personality. There was no tribute, no eulogy, no time for remembering what he was like … That was the time to do it, when everyone was gathered there to say goodbye. If not at his funeral, when else would we know that other people had heard about him, that we had a shared narrative of his life and loves, and be able to remind ourselves of what he meant to us? I should have spoken to him more when I had the chance, and not waited to discover his life from scraps of paper and military records. Who knew, who could have predicted, that one day he would be gone?
So, John Edwin Laurence Lewington, I am sharing your story now, and feeling immensely grateful that this Father’s Day 2019 marks almost to the day thirty years since we said goodbye.
Thank you …
And a youth said, Speak to us of Friendship.
And he answered, saying:
Your friend is your needs answered.
He is your field which you sow with love and reap with thanksgiving.
And he is your board and your fireside.
For you come to him with your hunger, and you seek him for peace.
When your friend speaks his mind you fear not the “nay” in your own mind,
Nor do you withhold the “ay.”
And when he is silent your heart ceases not to listen to his heart;
For without words, in friendship, all thoughts, all desires, all expectations are born and shared,
With joy that is unacclaimed.
When you part from your friend, you grieve not;
For that which you love most in him may be clearer in his absence,
As the mountain to the climber is clearer from the plain.
And let there be no purpose in friendship save the deepening of the spirit.
For love that seeks aught but the disclosure of its own mystery us not love but a net cast forth: and only the unprofitable is caught.
And let your best be for your friend.
If he must know the ebb of your tide, let him know its flood also.
For what is your friend that you should seek him with hours to kill?
Seek him always with hours to live.
For it is his to fill your need but not your emptiness.
And in the sweetness of friendship let there be laughter, and sharing of pleasures.
For in the dew of little things the heart finds its morning and is refreshed.
From The Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran – 1883-1931