Saturday 25 October 2014

My brother's eulogy for my father: Grahame Thornton

It may seem odd to put my brother, Simon’s, funeral oration for my father on my, albeit merely approximately, philosophical blog. But there are two reasons. First, I simply want it by me now*. But second, and more of a general rationale, this: The negotiation of our experience of the death of those we love through reflection on them seems to me to be one of the highest expressions of our broader rationality. It is one of the trickiest things we are called on to think and feel our way through in the space of reasons.

My brother's eulogy for my father: Grahame Thornton

“I would like to say a few words about my father Grahame Thornton from a personal point of view. I have picked out three things that seem important to me because they show something of the kind of man he was.


Firstly, his sense of humour.

In the last few days, many people have been kind enough to offer words of appreciation about Grahame, and most of those have mentioned his humour: saying that he was always joking, a great tease, someone with "a puckish sense of fun", or "a delightful and funny man, always with a tale to tell." And this is something I will always remember about him.

The strange thing is that despite the importance of humour in his life, dad was not particularly skilled at telling jokes. One of his favourites was the rather politically incorrect joke in which a man with no arms and no legs is sitting at a bus-stop, and when the bus arrives, the driver opens the door and calls to the man: "Hello Bill, how are you getting on?".

Although Dad loved this joke, he could never quite get it right. In one version of the punch-line, he had the bus driver call out to the man the friendly, but utterly unfunny remark: "Hello Bill, how are you doing?".

Determined not to make the same mistake again, and to include something about "getting on", dad prepared carefully for the next telling of the joke. Unfortunately this time he made the opposite mistake, turning the driver's words into: "Hello Bill, how are you going to get on?"

There were other joked he loved and told frequently, but which nobody else found funny. But for obvious reasons there seems little point repeating these now.

Instead, his real sense of fun showed itself in the countless practical jokes and small intellectual challenges he practised on those around him.

When Tim and I were boys, Dad entertained us and some friends one Halloween by filling the house with ghosts which he made from sheets draped over pieces of furniture, step-ladders and so on. We walked nervously through the dimly-lit house, unmasking one after another of dad's ghosts, all the time wondering where exactly he was, until we came to the attic stairs; at the top there was another sheeted white figure but this time, we could see the tip of dad's shoe poking out from the bottom of the sheet. We crept up the stairs; the figure remained motionless. One of us, bravely, took hold of the shoe, and to our horror it came away in his hand. At this point, with a terrifying roar, dad burst out of the cupboard at the foot of the stairs scaring us boys out of our wits.

But his pranks did not always take such dramatic forms: on one holiday in Wales, Mum, Tim and I took a trip on the narrow-gauge Tal-y-llyn steam railway, and we arranged that dad would drive to the other end of the line to collect us. The train went slowly through the many small stations, more slowly in fact than a car. So it was that Tim and I noticed, and before long most of the other passengers on the train had also noticed, the strange, bearded man sitting on every station platform when the train arrived, apparently engrossed in his copy of the Guardian.

No Christmas or birthday present from Dad came without a tag written like a crossword clue, with some cryptic hint about the nature of the gift inside. The presents themselves were often elaborately wrapped to conceal their true identity until the last minute. When I was 16, my parents gave me a watch for Christmas. A small item in itself, it came in a large, heavy parcel, with a thick legal textbook included to give is a misleading weight.

Sometimes dad's humour took a more literary form. Once, for a colleague of his who was in pursuit of a woman who had rejected his advances, dad wrote a pastiche, modern version of Andrew Marvell's poem "To His Coy Mistress". I never saw this work, but I have read enough of dad's doggerel verse to be sure that it would have been richly witty and that he would have put far more effort into it than the situation really deserved.

This kind of thing all seemed quite natural to us as we grew up, but looking back, I realise how much enjoyment, how much fun he gave to Tim and me and our friends and to others who knew him, and how much delight he took in doing so.

[Intellectual curiosity]

The second thing I want to illustrate about dad is what I think of as his intellectual curiosity. As several of his former colleagues have testified, Grahame certainly had a very deep knowledge of some subjects, particularly in the area of property law. But he also had at least a superficial knowledge of an astonishingly wide range of topics.

Dad was always interested to learn more: he read widely, he liked to meet new people, he enjoyed "working a room", he wanted to know all about our jobs, and the organizations we work for, he even attempted to read Tim's philosophical works (which are beyond me), and sometimes he liked to experiment. Nowhere was this more obvious than in the kitchen.

In the late 1970s, when the building company he had co-founded in Cleckheaton was not doing particularly well, dad found himself with more time on his hands, and he used this to help around at home, and to develop his own, highly experimental brand of cookery.

For example, observing that rhubarb is highly acidic, he wondered whether it could be improved by being mixed with an alkaline substance, so he combined it with precipitated chalk and served it stewed with custard. To his surprise he discovered that the acidity is partly what makes rhubarb interesting; Grahame's "neutralised" rhubarb was, I regret to say, barely edible and largely indistinguishable from slime.

There were other memorable culinary failures.

I will not forget "liver elephants", a kind of dumpling which he made one Sunday lunchtime from minced liver and breadcrumbs, whose unappealing grey colour and texture resembled chunks of elephant skin. These were not popular with the rest of the family. Needless to say, he only made them once, but liver elephants featured in our lives again when Tim as a teenager had some friends round for the evening, and Grahame, with characteristic playfulness, decided to set up a pretend Italian restaurant to feed the lads, whose painstakingly translated menu featured "elefanti del fegato". Fortunately nobody ordered them.

There were some notable successes: I was a particular fan of Grahame's range of economical, calorific, spiced puddings, of which Mij once recalled: "They were all just variations on bread".

But his piece de resistance, namely his recipe for curried fish a la martini, has, alas, perished along with him.

It is worth noting that these culinary experiments continued until late in his life. When Mij was in hospital earlier this year, we visited her one evening and left Grahame making soup with his grand-daughter Kirstin. On the way home, I sent Kirstin a text message to ask how dad was doing and how the soup was coming on. She replied: "Okay, he seems to be adding some things at random." I knew then that he was fine.

[At the End]

Earlier I mentioned the poet Andrew Marvell. One of the poems which I know dad liked was Marvell's "Horation Ode upon Cromwell's Return from Ireland", in which the poet describes the execution of King Charles I, and comments admiringly on the composed way that the king went to his death:

He nothing common did, or mean,
Upon the memorable Scene:
But with his keener Eye
The Axes edge did try.
Nor call'd the Gods with vulgar spight,
To vindicate his helpless Right,
But bow'd his comely Head
Down, as upon a Bed.

If I have been light-hearted, perhaps even frivolous, so far in describing my father's life, it is partly in order to celebrate it, which I think it deserves, and partly to prepare myself to describe the manner of his leaving it.

Because this is the third thing I want to talk about.

In the last few months Grahame's health declined and the practicalities of life without Mij became increasingly difficult for him; still he remained stubbornly independent, continuing to live at home in Park Mount Avenue, despite plenty of advice to the contrary. Though deeply saddened by the death of Mij, he did not give way to self-pity, but got on with life as best he could, even dreaming up some ambitious new schemes, such as his rather alarming plan to take up jam-making.

Several people who visited Grahame in hospital in his last week commented that he was still joking and still a gentleman, eating like a horse and endearing himself to the hospital staff.

When Lesley, Catriona and I saw him on the Saturday he was sharp and perfectly composed; he asked about the family, still as interested as ever to know about other people. How was Catriona enjoying her new school? Delighting in her description of a drama audition. How was Kirstin's football team doing? Commiserating about their recent defeat. He passed on news about other friends who had visited him. It was a cheerful visit; there was laughter, perhaps rather too loud for a hospital ward, and we left him in good spirits.

The next day he was in a more serious mood; he took care to explain to me who he wanted some of Mij's possessions to be given to; he requested the music to be played at his funeral, and he said some words about his career of such modesty that I will not repeat them. Then, after asking for help to perform a final act of kindness for a friend, he lay down, and a few minutes later, with so little fuss that I did not at first realise it was happening, he died.

Since then the words of Marvell have come back to me often, because they seem so fitting: He nothing common did, or mean/Upon that memorable Scene.

I think this last scene will stay in my memory for a long time, because it showed me something I had rarely seen before in my father: a calm, dignified acceptance of his fate.

Those of us who survive Grahame have much to be thankful for; the ridiculous jokes, the memories of happy times together, the love which he obviously felt for us.

His loss is, as we knew it would be, a heavy blow. But I think the blow is softened by the way it fell. He did not suffer physical pain or, I believe, mental anguish, and at the end he was prepared. If such a thing is possible, Grahame died a good death, and I think from this we can take some comfort.”

(*Having written it, the familiarity of this phrase or thought bugged me. I now realise that it is a channel of this: ‘You can take all those, but leave me Thoreau till I go. I need him by me now.’)