Our spiritual journey - Louise's and mine - has taken us this year into the creative silences of the Quaker church - see my forthcoming series of six blogposts about life seen through the eyes of a new Quaker attender. Quakers have a handbook called Advices & Queries that has stood them in good stead for over 350 years. It was last revised in 1994 and below is No.30 of the forty-two insights of the Society of Friends, the formal name for the Quaker church. I begin my post with this Advice and Query because it is concerned with death and mourning and their meaning - and I have been moved by the death of two of my friends this year.
30. Are you able to contemplate your death and the death of those closest to you? Accepting the fact of death, we are freed to live more fully. In bereavement, give yourself time to grieve. When others mourn, let your love embrace them.
|RIP - Pete Richards and David Siggers|
In this blogpost I pay my respects to two men, Pete Richards and David Siggers, who have died this year. They were aged 62 years. It seems a telling coincidence that they were both born in 1960, the year I started my secondary school education aged 11 years. Their importance for me can best be understood once you know that they were both in their lifetime the subject of my laudatory blogposts. If this blogpost were to carry a subtitle, it would be the title of my schooldays' award-winning essay: 'Courage in adversity'. A little old-fashioned, but still apposite.
For the record, Pete died on 14 April this year; David died last week.
Here is the link to press for my tribute to Pete in his lifetime. It was published on 11 March 2019.
And here is the link to press for my tribute to David in his lifetime. It was published on 17 November 2017.
Pete, you will understand if you read the post, was a retired award-winning publican living in London who had a passion for progressive rock music and related genres. He was already well into that musicalworld when he came, aged 15, with his mate, Garry Strudwick, all the way from west Wales to share the delights of the Reading Pop Festival in August 1975.
|Feast your eyes on the talent!|
Pete was my brother-in-law but he had lost his sister, Glynis, in March the year before when she died at the wheel of our car one night in Slough on the way back home from the railway station, having dropped off friends. Don't drink and drive. Glynis died. I survived.
Those were traumatic times - for me, and for Pete and his family. Pete's dad, Glyn, my father-in-law, had bought a pub - The Farriers Arms - outside Llanelli, on the road to Carmarthen, when he took early retirement from the fire service in 1968/9. He had been in charge of the Warwick fire station and I first met him in Warwick when Glynis took me home to meet the family when we became an item very shortly after the start of our undergraduate days at Oxford (1967-70). Glyn was a breath of fresh air after my own experience of lower-middle-class suburban family life. He was 'a social drinker', as Garry Strudwick said to me over the phone from west Wales yesterday when we were reflecting on Pete and his family and his life. Glyn enjoyed drinking and the camaraderie that came with the pints of beer. He drank a lot and rarely seemed the worse for it. He also smoked a lot. The idea of Glyn as a publican seemed a perfect match and he was indeed a brilliant host. The Farriers Arms boomed in popularity.
Unfortunately, Glyn was no businessman. The cellar was kept in good order, but not the accounts. Shortly after those chickens came home to roost and he had been forced to sell The Farriers, he lost his daughter in that fatal car crash in 1974. His youngest son, Pete, was far from being his centre of attention. Garry tells some hair-raising stories of what he and Pete got up to together. Drink, of course, was part of Pete's solution to the problems of grief and neglect at home. Meanwhile, the light of the promising academic career that beckoned as he made his way through Llanelli Grammar School, the brother of Glynis who had gained a very good Oxford first-class history degree in 1970, began to burn less bright. As Pete found his comforts in music and becoming, like his dad, 'a social drinker', his focus on academic goals faded. By the end of the decade of the 70s, his dad, Glyn, had died from throat cancer. Pete carried on smoking and drinking.
|Pete and his sister, Glynis, in 1973 - Manorbier Castle, west Wales|
Best to draw a veil over those years when Pete came of age and entered his twenties, except to say that when I fell in love with Louise and we married in 1976, Pete and his mum and his dad showed nothing but love and respect for Louise - and that affection continued, in all three cases, until they died. Pete lost his way in those early years as an adult but by the time he was in his thirties he had found his vocation. It comes as no surprise, perhaps, that his forte was as a publican. He was, like his dad, a brilliant host - and he could do the books! Pete prospered. He married again and Mandy became the love of his life.
But Pete, when eventually faced with the choice between giving more time to Mandy or continuing to live a life devoted to the pub trade, made what he told me not so long ago was the biggest mistake of his life. So Mandy left him. After that, I think his life became at times less than he would have wished. Our own contact was sporadic. He stayed one weekend with us in the Barns in Reydon, Southwold and I drove him from there to his mother's funeral in Llanelli in the 90s. A decade and more passed, and then after our move to Cornwall he came for a few days in 2016, I think, and stayed in the Old Vicarage hotel up the road and we drove around the countryside and had a beer or two together in country pubs. Neither of us were 'social drinkers' now. Pete's health was beginning to give way. He had already experienced homelessness when the lady who was then his partner had kicked him out on the street. Garry told me of a time when he got a call from his mate, Pete, explaining that he was living in a bus shelter and drawing hostile attention. The friendship of Garry and Pete was very strong; they continued to meet together, distance no problem, attending gigs performed by their favourite bands until very recently. So when Garry got that message about life in a bus shelter he became Pete's guardian angel and drove hundreds of miles to rescue him, take him back to west Wales - and ensured he had temporary housing.
|After Pete's passing, I came across this Facebook tribute from Gianina. Pete had spoken to me with genuine delight about his visit to see Gianina and her husband in their new home in Abingdon. Extraordinary find on Facebook - thank you, Gianina.|
Pete found other guardian angels at important times in his life thereafter. Not least, was the good Samaritan who secured him his last home, a St Mungo's flat for the homeless in London. That was where Pete was living when he came to cheer me on when I ran the London marathon in 2017 and again in 2019. Afterwards, we shared a drink and precious time together in the Citizen M hotel where we were staying. He was still as cheerful and engaged as ever, but the lack of mobility and his discomfort were more evident. I began to tell him about my own cancer diagnosis and he said nothing. I changed the subject. Later that year, after my radiotherapy and drug treatment had halted the cancer in its tracks, we met again for what would be the last time in person. I made an over-night journey from Cornwall to London to see first Pete in a south London Wetherspoon's for a couple of hours - another precious and memorable occasion - and then David Siggers in his home in Brent for a couple of hours in the afternoon, before returning to Paddington to catch the last train home to Cornwall. I remember telling Pete about now being in remission and saying 'You didn't comment on my cancer back in April'. He looked at me and replied, 'I have always seen you as indestructible'.
That threw me - but looking back, the thought had flashed through: 'So are you!'
Of course, in the end, we all pass away.
I last had a conversation by phone with Pete in January this year. It was his 62nd birthday on the 23 January and I had managed to secure for him on eBay a rare CD of the Mahavishnu Orchestra. He was delighted. He had just been released home to his flat from hospital after being rushed in as an emergency. Then in late March came an incoherent phone call from someone I eventually recognized was Pete. He was in a hospital, that much I grasped. But where? A couple of hours and a number of lengthy phone calls later, I had found his location. As I was to discover, it was a ward for the terminally ill in a London hospital. The nursing staff there are dedicated to ensuring their patients died with dignity and as free from pain as possible. By now, Pete was afflicted with his father's terminal condition, throat cancer, along with all the other ailments. He could no longer speak.
The call from the ward sister eventually came. Pete's last hours were approaching. Talking to a dying man on the phone, with communication only one-way, knowing that my Pete could hear and understand every word I was uttering was hard. I heard afterwards from the ward sister that the care nurse beside him was moved. That was a comfort. The next morning, Pete rallied briefly before dying later that day.
If it is a remarkable coincidence that both my friends who have died this year were the same age, so too is the fact that in the autumn of 2019, I came to London and saw them both on the same day, for the last time in person. A few months later, the clouds of coronavirus filled our skies and my travels ceased.
Let me tell you now about David Siggers. This is picture of him aged around 7, with Christine, his mum. The old Wembley stadium is in the background. Davis was a child with Duchenne's muscular dystrophy. What follows is taken and adapted from my 2017 blogpost, celebrating David and his life.
I first met David in the early 1980s when I was teaching at Aylestone Community School in Brent. The school that I had joined as Head of History in 1977 was now offering its Sixth Form (Years 12 and 13) courses to adults from the local community as well as its internal students. David was in my GCSE History 'O' level class for one year - and passed with a Grade A. The following year, he entered my GCE History 'A' level class and took the exam after a year and passed with a Grade C.
|David and his sister, Teresa - early 1960s|
David had a condition known as Duchenne's muscular dystrophy. His mum, Christine Siggers, died in 2017 and she was an inspiration. She and her husband, Will, had three children - Teresa, Jeffrey and David. All had Duchenne's. Jeff died aged 21. Teresa was 31 when she died. David was in his early twenties when he arrived in his wheel-chair in the sixth form bloc of the school - a charming and clever and handsome young man (no, David, I didn't need that brown paper envelope; I can say it for free). He had lost most of his mobility but his fingers could still hold a pen and the writing skill remained for a few more years. David later started an OU degree course with success but could not complete it due to Duchenne's.
|David with his brother Jeffrey|
After I left the school in 1984, I remained in contact with David by post and once a year or so I would return, first from Oxford and then Suffolk and finally from Cornwall, to see him in his home which was a stone's throw from Aylestone School (later renamed as Queen's Park Community School). I met Will and Christine and members of his family and their friends, and girl-friends of David - one of whom I had taught, and members of his care-team who were all extraordinary people, coming from many different parts of the world. It was such a cosmopolitan place, David's home. Will died in 2001 and Louise and I went to the funeral and the wake later, in David's home.
When Christine died, aged 85, in the summer of 2017, we were in Greece and could not attend the funeral. David has produced a family tribute in which he wrote:
"Bringing up three disabled children through the fifties and sixties was very tough for her (and my father) as there was no extra financial help and no help in the form of carers ... It was also a time when the majority of people were still scared of disability and people felt free to comment and be rude about people with disabilities, and Mum and Dad had plenty of abuse, harassment and arguments in public about her 'daring' to venture out in public with Teresa, Jeffrey and myself."
|Christine and Will Siggers - their wedding day - 1951|
Then, in 2002, David married Belinda and in 2006 baby Christine was born. in 2017, Belinda and David had another daughter, Aba. Belinda was pregnant with Aba when Louise and I visited in late April, the day after my London Marathon run. Belinda is an extraordinary lady, born in Ghana, multi-talented and lovely.
|David and family in 2018|